Father Dubay defines economy as a careful use of money and material goods. He calls it a quality, not a defect. In other words, it can ally itself with a proper frugality but it isn't a synonym for the Christian ideal.
Economy is good when it is for a good reason, (for example to save money and resources for more important things) but bad when it is for a bad reason.... as when you deny someone else something they need for economical reasons.
He uses an example which is puzzling to me. He says it may be more economical to buy an expensive, heavy car that will last twice as long as two smaller ones. But that might not be in accord with a vow of poverty -- to buy the more expensive, durable one.
I haven't figured that out. Any thoughts?
A synonym of economy as he defines it seems to be "thrift".
"Very few men know how to use money properly. They can earn it, lavish it, hoard it, waste it; but to deal with it wisely as a means to an end, is an education difficult of acquirement."Orison Swett Marden, quoted here.
Economy in the classic meaning derived from "oikos", the Greek word for "house" and it meant something like proper management.
"Thrift" is a similar word to "frugality" -- as frugality derives from "fruitfulness", thrift derives from "thriving". So it definitely implies using money and things in a productive, balanced way.
This Catholic Encyclopedia article on Care of the Poor says that one thing people can do to help the poor is educate them in thrifty practices. While many people are poor because of social injustice, as the encyclical Quadregesimo Anno declares, it is also true that knowing some of the principles of thrift can help alleviate poverty. Probably a certain kind of improvidence is partly due to the discouragement faced by those who live in inhumane conditions. It's possible for even people with little money to develop tastes for relative luxuries -- speaking for myself primarily here! -- and so one aspect of voluntary poverty might be to learn to keep tastes and desire simple and ordinate.
From an epistle of Cyprian of Carthage:
"How is such a conversion possible, that there should be a sudden and rapid divestment of all which, either innate in us has hardened in the corruption of our material nature, or acquired by us has become inveterate by long accustomed use? These things have become deeply and radically engrained within us. When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts? And he who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing?"
But once again, thinking of thrift or economy as a "means to an end" rather than an end in itself seems like the best way. Proper thrift results in ability to be generous and hospitable, a trait valued by the great ancient cultures -- one thinks of Abraham and his fervent hospitality to the guests who turned out to be angels. Also, Aristotle says that generosity is the virtuous mean between wastefulness and stinginess. That goes along with the derivations of "thrift" and "frugality" from "thriving" and "fruitful" since you can sort of picture a plant growing vigorously and providing fruit and shade and oxygen and beauty.
Plato held that the state had three orders
The ideal state is modelled on the individual soul. It consists of three orders: rulers (corresponding to the reasonable soul), producers (corresponding to desire), and warriors (corresponding to courage). The characteristic virtue of the producers is thrift, that of the soldiers bravery, and that of the rulers wisdom. Since philosophy is the love of wisdom, it is to be the dominant power in the state.So thrift is a trait conducive to productivity, not a thing of value in itself. For example, St Francis of Assissi's father, a wealthy cloth merchant, thought his son was being very reckless by giving away his wares to the poor, but of course it was not so.
Interesting side point -- it was Keynes who developed the concept of the "paradox of thrift" -- in opposition to the Austrian economists, he thought that if the nation as a whole saved money, it would be destructive of the economy. So apparently, in this model, we are set up for a constant consumeristic loop -- if I hire you to take care of my kids so I can go work at the school where your kids are being taught, we are stimulating the economy, whereas if I stay at home with my kids and you do too, we're actually an economic drag : ). This reminds me of Brave New World where there were new fashions for handbags and the like every season so that people would keep spending their money and discarding the old things that were no longer trendy. This seems opposed to true productivity, and it also seems very characteristic of our consumeristic society.