Heinrich Pesch and Solidarism: Time to Be Rediscovered?

The passing of the eminent American Catholic economist, Dr. Rupert J. Ederer, at the age of ninety on Thanksgiving Day 2013 calls attention to the great, but equally unsung, economic thinker and system that he devoted most of his career to furthering: Heinrich Pesch, S.J. and solidarism. Pesch, who died in 1926, was thought to have inspired Pope Pius XI’s great social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno five years later. In spite of Pesch’s relative obscurity, Ederer called him an economic “system builder,” on par with Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes—although the system he constructed was based firmly on Catholic teaching and the natural law. The word “solidarism” rings of the principle of solidarity, which has been stressed more recently in Catholic social teaching. In fact, solidarism is also referred to as “the solidarity work system.” There is some indication that Pesch’s solidarism influenced the famed Solidarity trade union movement in Poland that rose to prominence a generation ago and led the way to the collapse of Eastern European communism.

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The Christmas Miracle

I picture him as a tall Texan, his outsize appearance easily eclipsing everything in sight, save only the immense shrine that he and a busload of tourists have come to Rome to see.  And then, throwing up his hand at the end of an exhausting exploration of the world’s most beautiful basilica, I hear him asking the expert guide the one thing he’s come all this way to know:

How much does it weigh?

I love that story.  In fact, I imagine him wandering endlessly about the Eternal City in witless search of answers to all sorts of endearingly absurd questions.  The Coliseum, for instance, about which he would surely want to know, “Why wasn’t it finished?”  Or the Pantheon, whose opening in the ceiling would have utterly mystified him.  “What’s the point of a dome unless you’re going to close the freaking thing?”

As a species of reductionism, however, revealing the mindset of a man for whom the merit of anything can best be measured by the ton, it is priceless.  One thinks of C.S. Lewis skewering that fellow in one of his books because, in surveying the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, he can only imagine it as raw material for cornering the salt market.  Reductionism, as someone once said, is the sin of seeing the pearl as the oyster’s mistake.

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