Lessons of the Church’s first (officially) saintly economist

Late last month in Rome, the first lay economist was raised to the altars — officially declared a “blessed” by the Church, in the final stage before being named a saint. 

In remarks to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square that same day, Pope Benedict XVI said the message of Giuseppe Toniolo remained “very relevant, especially in this time: Blessed Toniolo shows the path of the primacy of the human person and of solidarity.” 

Toniolo, who died in 1918 at the age of 73, was a husband, a father of seven children and a professor of economics at the University of Pisa in northern Italy. 

Pope Benedict highlighted several biographical aspects of Toniolo’s life: He was an “impassioned servant of communion within the Church”; he “realized the teachings of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum”; he “promoted Catholic Action, the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, the social weeklies of Italian Catholics and an institute of international law of peace.” 

The pope also singled out one quote from Toniolo as particularly illustrative: “Above those legitimate needs and interests of single nations and states, there is something inseparable which guides them all toward unity, and that is the duty of human solidarity.” 

Vatican analyst John L. Allen Jr. broke the significance of Toniolo’s beatification into five points, which I found very interesting and I’ll summarize here: 

1. It underscores the Church’s social teaching. Toniolo was among its pioneers, advocating such things as labor unions, mandatory days off work, just wages and other reforms. 

2. It underscores the value of social groups and institutions that stand between the individual and the state. This point has special relevance to the situation of the Church in the United States today, where the government seems increasingly intent on enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach to social questions, and forcing non-governmental players — like faith-based groups — out of the public square. 

3. It underscores how economists who think with the Church often find themselves political orphans.  

4. It underscores the importance of laity — not priests or religious — as the prime movers in transforming the world. The Vatican secretary of state said Toniolo’s lay activism was an example of how the third millennium belonged to the Catholic laity (while the first was of the monks, and the second of the mendicant orders). 

5. It underscores the importance of eschewing Church divisions and polarization. Toniolo thrived under the reform-minded Pope Leo, but didn’t go into the opposition when his successors took a different tack. In fact, Allen writes, “he’s a model for how to remain in touch with officialdom, without surrendering the effort to push the Church forward.” 

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