Capitalists Should Be Nervous: A Response to Fr. Robert Barron on Laudato Si’

Capitalists Should Be Nervous: A Response to Fr. Robert Barron on Laudato Si’ July 17, 2015
Environment wrecks (Unknown author, Tycoon Toys, date unknown; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-USA-Employee).
Environment wrecks (Unknown author, Tycoon Toys, date unknown; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-USA-Employee).

Keith Michael Estrada is the founder of Students for a Fair Society at Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a member of the International Observatory of Young Catholics (Rome). Finishing his MA in philosophy at the aforementioned institution, he writes from Seattle-land, Washington. He can be reached at keithmichaelestrada.com.

This is a guest post.

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Back to Europe. A third model was added to the two models of the 19th century: socialism. Socialism took two main paths — the democratic and the totalitarian one. Democratic socialism became a healthy counterbalance to radically liberal positions in both existing models. It enriched and corrected them. It proved itself even when religious confessions took over… In many ways, democratic socialism stands and stood close to the Catholic social teachings. It in any case contributed a substantial amount to the education of social conscience.

— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in Europe: Today and Tomorrow

Father Robert Barron’s piece this week for the National Catholic Register, “A Prophetic Pope and the Tradition of Catholic Social Teaching,” considers the many words offered by Pope Francis on the prevailing economic order, the destruction of life -moral and biological-, and our duty to the poor.

Father Barron begins by acknowledging the concerns many supporters of capitalism are expressing since the general population started learning church teaching on these realities through the news media:

…many supporters of the capitalist economy in the West might be forgiven for thinking that His Holiness has something against them. Again and again, Pope Francis excoriates an economy based on materialism and greed, and with prophetic urgency, he speaks out against a new colonialism that exploits the labor of those in poorer countries. With startling bluntness, he characterizes the dominant economic form in the developed world as “an economy that kills.” Moreover, in a speech delivered in Bolivia, a country under the command of a socialist president, the Pope seemed, almost in a Marxist vein, to be calling on the poor to seize power from the wealthy and take command of their own lives. What do we make of this?

Of course, we must accept and embrace the words of Pope Francis, and must, at the same time, as Father Barron submits, contextualize them so that they may be better “understood in the framework of Catholic social teaching.”

It is unfortunate that Father Barron accepts, without providing any analysis or critique, the idea that the Catholic social tradition rejects socialism absolutely while maintaining that what is needed is merely a refining of the capitalist system. In agreement with Robert Sirico and Michael Novak, Barron writes that Catholic Social Teaching, “clearly aligns itself against socialistic arrangements and clearly for the market economy.”

After highlighting the many advancements made, against the wishes of many capitalists, within our economic order-such as minimum wage, child labor laws, anti-trust provisions, worker unions-Barron touches on moral degradation vis-a-vis capitalism. “Won’t the drive for profit lead to the destruction of nature, unless people realize that the earth is a gift of a gracious God and meant to be enjoyed by all? This is precisely why the moral relativism and indifferentism that holds sway in many parts of the West,” and not necessarily capitalism itself, “—fostered by the breakdown of the family and the attenuating of religious practice—poses such a threat to the economy.” The existential threat to human life fails to make an appearance in Barron’s list of concerns related to capitalist social structures.

Barron reminds us in the end, “the Pope’s attention is not so much on the mechanisms of capitalism, but rather on the wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others.”

I have a few questions after reading Barron’s piece.

To begin, my initial qualms include what appears to be Barron’s ultimate siding with what he calls capitalism; the way he distinguishes the “mechanisms of capitalism” from the “wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others,” and; his lack of substantial discussion on the topic of socialism and socialization. The first is embodied in the second and third qualm, so I will treat the second and third directly.

The mechanisms of capitalism aren’t the problem for Barron, Pope Francis, or Catholic Social Teaching, we are told, but rather, the abuse of the system by moral deficiencies and/or the decline of the institution of the family and “the attenuating of religious practice.”

The many structures found in human life are very difficult to distinguish entirely – there is a great deal of overlap. Barron appropriately stages the problem of capitalism for us in a way that may have made Robert Sirico (Acton Institute) and Michael Novak (Ave Maria University and American Enterprise Institute) smile.

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