Corruption and Catholic social thought

Pope Francis has raised, in several of his talks and encyclicals, the problem of corruption. It is surprising how rarely this has featured explicitly in Catholic social teaching more generally because it is a major driver of poverty, injustice and miserable living conditions.

In particular, Pope Francis pointed to corruption as being a problem in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato si. He also raised the problem of lobbying – something not nearly as damaging as corruption, but still worthy of attention in Catholic social thought.

Whilst respecting the principle of subsidiarity, we want governments to act when there are problems that cannot be solved by individuals, civil society and businesses alone. But what if government itself is corrupt? Or what if government policy is determined by the interests of lobbyists?

There is a huge economic literature on how vested interests influence policy in practice (indeed, Nobel prizes have been won by Joseph Stigler and James Buchanan for work in this area). The promotion of personal interests in politics is not compatible with the view in Catholic social teaching that political life should promote the common good rather than particular interests. In thinking about problems of unjust lobbying and corruption we are dealing, of course, with the reality of sinfulness.

Corruption, the illegal clearing of forests and the ignoring of customary rights of ownership are responsible for 50-90% of all logging activity in tropical forests…

As Pope Francis noted in Laudato si, policies that involve providing government support to high-tech industrial projects is often guided as much by corporate vested interests as anything else: “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” (Laudato si, 20). When it comes to corruption, Pope Francis pointed out that “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (123). Countries are exhorted to combat corruption (172 and 179).

The phenomenon of corruption  can often unite sinfulness in the market economy and in government with catastrophic results. Corruption in political and in economic life may reach such levels that neither business nor the political system are able to perform their proper functions in the service of the common good.

Corruption is defined by Transparency International as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It should be noted that corruption can take place wholly within the private sector or wholly within the state sector, but      there is often an interface between the two. An example of corruption would be the bribing of a judge by a commercial party to find in favour of that bribing party in a case regarding the polluting of well water by mining activity.

Corrupt behaviour by business and/or government can totally destroy the fabric of society. It does not simply make society poorer, but it can undermine all the features of integral human development (peace, civil order, employment, private property, prosperity, the environment, morality, and so on). It can also undermine the tax base of a country which is necessary for the provision of those goods and services that only the state can provide.

Corruption is also strongly linked to deforestation. The figures are astonishing. Corruption, the illegal clearing of forests and the ignoring of customary rights of ownership are responsible for 50-90% of all logging activity in tropical forests such as those of the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia; 40-61% of timber production in Indonesia is believed to stem from illegal logging; in Gabon, 70% of harvested timber is considered illegal[1].

Corruption can become so deeply entrenched that it is very difficult for people who wish to work to promote the common good to change societies beset by corruption or to behave in an uncorrupt way. For example, it is difficult to behave ethically as a politician if all other politicians are obtaining campaign funds from corrupt sources. Individuals, whole communities and businesses may  become excluded from economic life if they are unwilling to pay bribes to obtain contracts. As such, corruption can create what Pope John Paul II described as a “structure of sin”, using a phrase (but defining it more precisely) that came from liberation theology.

Corruption offends justice on a monumental scale. It leads to the appropriation of funds intended for the provision of goods and services to other citizens or an increase in the burden of taxation and thus the taking of goods from citizens that are then not used for the legitimate functions of government. Those companies that bid honestly for contracts, and people who work for such companies, would also have not received what might have been due to them in justice if contracts are granted using corrupt processes. As noted above, the wider ramifications of this can lead to structures of sin being created: it may come at significant cost to people not to engage in corruption and some people might have to behave corruptly just to get by.

Many countries experience low-level corruption on a widespread scale. For example, it is estimated that 30 per cent of Nigerian citizens who had contact with public officials in the 12 months to 2019 were asked to pay a bribe. Those who paid a bribe, on average, paid six bribes a year. Healthcare professionals and police are the most common public officials with which citizens had contact and roughly half of those who refused to pay a bribe reported negative consequences. The link to culture is obvious. If bribery is widespread and a bribe is not paid, one may receive a fine for an offence which has not been committed or somebody who needs urgent hospital treatment may not receive it. At the margin, somebody paying a bribe may receive justice because they would be unjustly treated if the bribe were not paid, but the payment of the bribe adds to the culture of corruption, which creates difficult personal and moral dilemmas.

Given the link between dishonest business practice, virtue ethics and the conduct of government, this is an important topic that should probably be the subject of more reflection in Catholic social thought and teaching.


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Author: Andre Azevedo Alves and Philip Booth

Published: 21st June 2022

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020