Friday, August 29, 2008

Catholicism & Capitalism

Can Catholic Social Teaching Offer a Valid Critique?

The Moneylender and His Wife, by Quentin Massys (1514)

When Fernando Lugo was elected President of Paraguay a few months ago, it suggested that liberation theology may not be quite as dead as its critics would like it to be. We all know about certain circles in the Church, some within the very top reaches of the hierarchy, who get their knickers entirely in a twist when one theologian or another dares to borrow "marxist dialectic" in some kind of synthesis with Catholic theology. On the other hand, John Paul II was a firm critic of untrammelled capitalism too, as is his successor, so why doesn't anyone get at least mildly perturbed when someone tries to produce a synthesis between Catholic theology and the classically liberal laissez-faire thought of the likes of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek?

Case in point... In addition to writing thoughtful and useful critiques of liberation theology such as Will it Liberate ? Questions About Liberation Theology, the author and intellectual Michael Novak has also written books and articles seeking to marry free market capitalism to Catholic social ethics, such as books titled (I'm not kidding here): The Corporation: A Theological Inquiry.

In his new book Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, Michael Sean Winters describes the thought of various Catholic paleo-conservatives and neo-conservatives (although I think he's wrong to link the paleo Pat Buchanan with the neo-cons on economics), including a truly amazing bit of exegesis from Novak:

Buchanan's conservatism was a different brand from the cheerful variety Reagan had offered. His Catholicism was also different from that of most Catholics. His vision was dark and censorious and had more in common with Calvinism than it did with American Catholicism. Buchanan was a kind of modern-day Daniele da Volterra, the sixteenth-century painter the reactionary Pope Paul IV hired to cover the nudes in the Sistine Chapel. The culture of the American Catholic ghetto had celebrated life, even while it directed life's choices toward approved ends, but Buchanan's worldview saw only calamity and conflict. The air in Houston (the 1992 Republican Convention) had no celebratory quality, no human sympathy, nothing of the immigrant Catholic community's vibrant, lively, hopeful culture.

Buchanan was not alone. Conservative Catholic writer William E Buckley had spawned a gaggle of conservative Catholics from his perch as founding editor of the magazine National Review, and Buchanan was merely the movement's most public, political face. A triumvirate of Catholic neoconservatives emerged who would present themselves as the defenders of Catholic and Republican Party orthodoxy in America. Lutheran convert Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the magazine First Things, joined forces with liberal convert and American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Novak to give the GOP a Catholic imprimatur. Catholic writer George Weigel, who made up in hubris what he lacked in academic credentials, was the third member of the Catholic neoconservative troika. All three were prepared to relegate the Church's teachings to an adjectival status and ignore those teachings when they did not suit them, and their public writings inevitably read like a recitation of GOP talking points as much as a thoughtful reflection on the Christian Gospels.

What linked these three intellectuals with Buchanan was the smugness of their judgements and the ridiculous, almost idolatrous, manner in which they paid homage to democratic capitalism and the American way. How far they had fallen from Monsignor Ryan's teachings, or from the teachings of Popes Leo, Plus XI, John XXIII and Paul VI can be seen in an excerpt from Novak's tome, Toward a Theology of the Corporation. "For many years, one of my favorite texts of Scripture has been Isaiah 52:2-3. `He hath no form or comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; he was despised, and we esteemed him not,"' wrote Novak, citing one of the most famous Christological passages of the Hebrew scriptures, set to music by Handel in the Messiah and read in church every Good Friday. But Novak had a different use for these solemn verses. "I would like to apply these words to the modern business corporation, a much despised incarnation of God's presence in this world."

Er, wha-aa...?

Ronald Reagan ushered in an era where we find that the business executive represents the pinnacle of what every good American should aspire to be... Utilitarian, efficient, pragmatic, bold, unsentimental, and supposedly the fount of all good judgement and common sense. According to this line of thinking, only the private sector is capable of producing anything truly useful, since men and women are reliably and realistically motivated solely by self-interest.

Something has gone terribly wrong with all this. As the response to Barak Obama's speech the other night demonstrates so clearly, Americans are looking for their government to help them, not to hurt them. That's not to say that they aren't self-reliant. They are. They just don't buy into the Republican axiom that the only purpose of goverment is to enforce the laws protecting private property (although when it came to the property of the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens after Hurricane Katrina, it didn't seem to matter much to the GOP). Americans are not looking for handouts, but they expect the government to protect the public from corporations that have grown increasingly more powerful and rapacious.

Last week there was an article in The Tablet (UK) by Clifford Longley called An Acceptable Face for Capitalism, questioning whether Catholic social teaching could provide a touchstone from where we could all begin to look at ameliorating the more pernicious effects of the varieties of "savage" capitalism. Some excerpts:

With the all-conquering global free market seeming to trounce all competing social and economic ideologies, a moral and practical framework looks increasingly necessary. Could Catholic social teaching fill the gap?

In a page-long article in The Observer in June, Will Hutton, a doyen of British writers on economics and chief executive of the
Work Foundation, heaped copious praise on the Vatican for daring to ask the questions that politicians are refusing to ask - questions such as: how can capitalism and its market-driven dynamic be made to serve the good of everyone and not just the wealthy?

Hutton had just taken part in a conference in Rome convened by the
Centesimus Annus Foundation, and was clearly taken by surprise to find how much overlap there was between Catholic social teaching and his own economic ideas, especially his passionate advocacy of stakeholding. How you give modern economic systems a human face was one of the questions posed...

In the field of Catholic social teaching - or "Catholic social thought", to use an American expression for the more speculative side of the business - there are even more radical questions around than these. One of them, a little surprisingly perhaps, is simply this: "Could the economic and cultural criteria identified in the tradition of Catholic social thought provide an effective path to sustainable prosperity for all?" This was the central proposition round which a four-day conference took place in Los Angeles recently, organised by the
Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, which is attached to the University of Southern California.

The tendency for economic systems eventually to self-destruct is notorious, as economies in the West seem determined to demonstrate once more. Is their fatal flaw the fact that they are using a wrong model of human nature, an abstraction called homo economicus (or in an earlier period, Marxist man) which bears little resemblance to the real people who work in real economies? Instead of bullying people to behave more like the theory says they should and wringing one's hands when it all goes wrong, why not design a system around a true appraisal of human nature? It was a thought dear to the heart of Pope John Paul II, who saw the failures of Marxism and of "savage capitalism", as he called it, all too clearly. It was their anthropology that let them down...

It was not just the results of these economic systems that failed these analysts' ethical criteria, but their internal methodology, especially the deterministic assumptions these systems made about human nature - that we are all fully informed, rational individuals who act entirely in our own interests. (We) saw these dissenting economists as saying things not far from what Catholic social teaching tradition had been saying in papal social encyclicals stretching from
Rerum Novarum of 1891 to Centesimus Annus 100 years later. Nor is this so surprising. Human nature is the common factor.

Through its natural-law tradition largely focused on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and augmented by biblical insights, the Catholic Church has developed a profound understanding of human nature in all its glories and all its flaws. Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, observers of human nature coming from an Enlightenment Western tradition, have reached similar conclusions. Caron's proposal was to bring these two schools of thought together, to let the economists talk to the theologians to see how far they would agree. I have to say that by the end of the four days it was difficult to tell them apart.

While the
True Wealth of Nations conference was representative of much mainstream Catholic American thought, there are other players in the field, notably the right-wing think tank called the Acton Institute. The main message of that institute, which is attempting to spread its presence worldwide from its base in Grand Rapids, Michigan, seems to be that American capitalism as conceived by Republican neoconservatives is as close as it is possible to get to a model of capitalism that Catholicism could approve of - an idea that greatly appeals to certain wealthy Catholic businessmen in the United States and indeed to the whole ideology of "Americanism" that the neocons promote.

The Acton method seems to consist of emphasising bits of the tradition, such as several pro-business passages in Centesimus Annus, and ignoring those bits that were uncongenial, for instance, parts of
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, published in 1987, which were described by the neocon Wall Street Journal as warmed-up Marxism. That has undoubtedly made some in the Vatican nervous about how any new pronouncement might be received in America, and the Vatican has become a regular port of call for right-wing lobbyists.

Acton, which elevates personal and economic freedom to one of the highest ideals and condemns "Big Government" as the ultimate enemy, has not moved far from the anti-social-justice rhetoric of Friedrich Hayek. It is consequently anti-welfare, anti-tax and anti-common good. It has pitched in against the American bishops' conference, which has criticised George Bush's tax-cutting strategy as highly damaging to the poor. This debate is not just theoretical. Issues at the heart of the coming American presidential election are involved. It is an ideal time, one might think, for some clear exposition of the Church's social thinking in an American context...

There is a common view that market forces can be harnessed to good ends, that it is right for Governments to intervene when markets fail as they often do, and that a preferential option for the poor is an inescapable obligation of the Gospel. Wealth creation in all its complexity is both a human delight and a human duty, part of the continuation of the work of creation begun by God and entrusted by him to mankind's earliest ancestors.

We were not without human resources for our conference. Catholic social thought is a lively academic discipline on American Catholic campuses, which are intellectual environments where religion has not been marginalised. My theory is that what gives Catholic social teaching an extra edge in America is the absence there of any significant Marxist or socialist tradition, ideologies which in their prime in Europe and elsewhere offered a robust challenge to free-market capitalism and shaped its behaviour. With the departure of those competing ideologies, European societies may also need something like Catholic social teaching as a counter-weight to run-away market forces - as Will Hutton seemed to see.

And the result? Nobody took serious issue with our central proposition that the foundations of Catholic social thought could be used to find a path to sustainable prosperity, though a long list of loose ends was identified - a definition of the "common good" being among the most elusive. All the participants expressed themselves fascinated by the coherence that emerged. Indeed there was enough of it to justify turning the conference papers into a book, and an international publisher is being sought.

Will it make any difference? That depends on whether it is an idea whose time has come, or a byway of interest only to a few intellectuals. My sense is that it could well be the former. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, launched the subject of political economy as we know it today, and few books have had greater impact on Western culture. The True Wealth of Nations project is a modest attempt to take the argument further. If it meets a need, it will succeed.


crystal said...

Michael Sean Winters posts a lot at America magazie's blog, mostly about politics. He seems very liberal.

I don't think I understood it all well, but this statement ...

Wealth creation in all its complexity is both a human delight and a human duty, part of the continuation of the work of creation begun by God and entrusted by him to mankind's earliest ancestors.

.... just seems so wrong to me. It seems to fly in the face of Jesus saying that it's harder for a rich person to reach the kingdom of heaven, of him telling the young rich man to give away his possessions, etc. It's like a Catholic version of prosperity theology. But maybe I'm not understanding what he said correctly.

Jeff said...

Hi Crys,


Yeah, I know what you mean. Maybe he's getting at the incarnational principle, in a way? That we are co-creators along with God? Maybe he's saying that what we do here on earth matters... That what we create in our work or in our art, or in any creative endeavor is of lasting value for all time, and not something we do out of drudgery or to mark time until we leave this earth, all wasted effort and energy. Does that make sense? Maybe "wealth" was the wrong word for him to use.

crystal said...

Yes, I believe that's true of what we do here, or I hope it is. But creating money/wealth seems not right - you know, like that gospel story about the guy who became so rich that he needed to build a huge barn in which to put his stuff, then dropped dead just after? Maybe I'm just bitter about being so un-wealthy :)

Jeff said...


I see your point. There's nothing in the old Jewish tradition that makes it a disgrace to be poor, but it doesn't necessarily make it a virtue either. I've heard some people claim that the Parable of the Talents is an endorsement of capitalism and the seeking of wealth, but I'm not so convinced that that's what it's about. Nevertheless, Jesus wants us to have life, and to enjoy it abundantly.