A reader has questions about capitalism

A reader has questions about capitalism November 17, 2015

She writes:

Dear Mark, I am putting this in an email instead of a comment on a relevant thread because I have not figured out how to say what I want to say clearly and briefly, so I am hoping that you will understand what I mean, and say it better.

Okay.

First of all, I want to say that I am completely on board with following the Magisterium. I understand that if the Pope says something I disagree with, my first reaction should be “How can I learn and grow from this?” rather than “He must be wrong because he disagrees with me.” I am not at all trying to say that the Pope is wrong, or is saying anything in the wrong way. I am trying to learn what he means.

Excellent. That’s all the Church asks.

One big difference between opposition to abortion and opposition to capitalism is that opposition to abortion is very clear. If you have a baby, don’t kill it. Don’t kill the baby because he or she is the wrong gender, or because you think you might not have enough money, or, well, you know. Just don’t kill the baby.

Yep. But be aware that the Church does not “oppose capitalism”. It mere points out that it is a human tradition and that it is not infallible or immune to the effects of the fall. Capitalism can be practiced (as, say, democratic socialism or some other human system can be practiced) within the boundaries of Catholic Social Teaching.

I really don’t know what opposition to capitalism actually means when you get down to everyday life.

You are beginning from a faulty premise. There is no necessary opposition to capitalism in Catholic teaching. What there is, is an opposition to certain habits of thought and life that capitalism tends to encourage, but that capitalists need not embrace.

Does it mean that I as a good, middle-class Catholic should only grow my own vegetables instead of buying them at a grocery store?

Certainly not. And yet, growing one’s own vegetables is a good thing.

Does it mean that I should only have a house built by a group of my community, people I have lived among all my life?

Certainly not, and yet buying locally rather than sending your money to enrich a gigantic corporation and impoverishing a local community is not a bad thing either.

Does it mean that I should not own stocks or bonds, or put my money in an interest bearing account at the bank?

Certainly not. Nothing wrong with growing your wealth per se. And yet, what you invest your money in matters since many corporations generate their wealth by, for instance, cheating their workers of a just wage (one of the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance).

Does it mean that I should not buy things sold by people who are already rich, so that I will not enrich them?

No.

What about Domino’s Pizza, back in the day when it was owned by a Catholic who donated money to pro-life causes?

Enjoy your pizza. But then again, there are lots of local pizza shops that may make far better pizza that you may be missing out on in favor or ease or a slight cost difference.

I know what opposition to capitalism means when I am talking about people much richer and more powerful than me.

Again, the false premise is that the Church demands we “oppose capitalism.” She doesn’t. She demands we oppose greed, unjust wages, putting profits before human beings (i.e. idolatry) and the worship of “market forces” over the worship of God. Capitalism tends to encourage these things. But we are under no obligation to be slaves to capitalist ideology, any more than we are obliged by the fact that our biology encourages lust and gluttony to become slaves to appetite. The Holy Spirit frees us from such slavery if we will obey him.

It means that they should not make decisions about what to do with their vast wealth that increases their vast wealth.

Not necessarily. The issue is increasing their wealth unjustly.

Any such decision is clearly only motivated by greed, which is a mortal sin.

Again, not necessarily. Though Jesus’ warnings about the immense dangers of wealth and the worship of it are to be borne in mind by the wealthy and we certainly do see many of the wealthy today caught up in the raw worship of Mammon. (See “Trump, Donald”).

So people who are much richer and more powerful than I am should instead make decisions that increase MY wealth. This is slightly facetious, but I really don’t know what middle class people can and should do to oppose capitalism, let alone what can poor people do.

Again, a false premise.  Nobody need do anything to oppose capitalism per se, since capitalism is not opposed by the Church.  What we need to do is instead focus on living out Catholic Social teaching, meaning pursuing the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.  If you are not sure what these mean, follow the links I have provided (and either wait for the articles on subsidiarity and solidarity to appear or go to the Compendium on Social Doctrine of the Church for the thrilling conclusion.)

If he (the Pope) is only speaking to people who are rich and powerful enough to make a difference with their dollars, or euros, or pounds, or whatever, it is far too easy for the rest of us to get very sanctimonious and self-righteous in condemning their sins, while neglecting our own.

But he’s not. The Church calls every person to the task of living justly according to their means.

For instance, if someone who is merely medium middle class invents something that a whole lot of people want to buy, and then the whole society becomes dependent on, does that person have a moral obligation to reduce the price of the invention to a mere pittance so that more people can easily buy it?

It’s hard to address a remote hypothetical. The worker is worth his wages, but if the invention is really essential to human life (say, a means of purifying water cheaply in poverty stricken areas with bad water), then issues of the common good enter in. On the other hand, if it just a nifty software upgrade that does not constitute a matter of life and death, that’s another matter.

And if that person does have such an obligation, what is that to me? I can’t make them do it, I can only deplore that they have not sufficiently listened to their own conscience as to make it easier for me to buy their invention and still have money left over for other luxuries that I want.

I think the object lesson of Martin Shkreli’s greed may be instructive here.

Does this confusion even make sense to you?

Mostly no, since I think you are proceeding from the false premise. I hope this helps clarify that.

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  • Alma Peregrina

    I think the OP’s confusion stems from the fact that she doesn’t seem to conceive that there is such a thing as opposition to capitalism that isn’t a de facto embrace of communism.

    • Stu

      It’s paradigm from the Cold War. Communism was bad and therefore Capitalism is good and there is no alternative.

  • Dave G.

    I’m no economist. But I think the problem is less Capitalism than the heart and soul of the society that embraces it. Just like Socialism or Distributism. Take any of those, give them to a godless society of hedonism and narcissism, and it’s likely you won’t have a reflection of Christ-like communal living.

    • Cas

      Agreed, implementing any economic system is a godless society will result in something that does not reflect Christ-like communal living. A point that I’d like to tack on is that different systems will have a tendency to bring different sins to the fore; capitalism, with its focus on competition and individualism, is more naturally inclined towards the hedonism and narcissism you mention.

    • Stu

      I think the one thing that Distributism has going for it is that in promoting a wide distribution of production, it blunts to some extent the ability of a few to control the many and limits ill effects of the things you mentions. In other words, it assumes a fallen nature.

      • Ken

        Would you say that Distributism has a moral component but Capitalism does not? Is that a fair thing to say?

        • Stu

          Given Distributism is based upon subsidiarity and solidarity, which are certainly attributes of a just economic system, I think you can say that.

          • Ken

            Thanks. I’m usually afraid to venture into some of these areas since people read that and yell “communist!”

            • Stu

              I get called all of the following routinely:

              communist
              capitalist
              socialist
              fascist
              democrat
              republican
              libertarian

              and

              protestant
              schismatic
              reactionary
              rad trad

              and last week I got called a “Vatican II Conciliar”. That’s my new favorite.

              • Artevelde

                Serves you right, monarchist! :p

                • Stu

                  Well played.

                  And accurate.

  • Cas

    Excellent responses, Mark. I think the most salient point to take away from this is that, given the option, one should always choose to buy pizza from anywhere else but Domino’s — even if it means buying from another chain and not a family-owned pizzeria. Every time I’ve been forced to endure eating Domino’s, I’ve always been astounded by how Tom Monaghan managed to grow it into such a huge company.

    Seriously, though, these are really great answers that should go into a “best of” compilation your thoughts on various subjects. It would be a great reference, as your thinking and writing on these things is much deeper and eloquent than my own.

  • Igotfreshmilk

    Mark, thanks for your response. I am the original confused person. My confusion arose because for some time, especially around the time of the Pope’s visit, I kept reading that the Pope says that capitalism is opposed to Catholicism, that the Pope says that capitalism is “the dung of the devil”, that the American conservatives who used to like the Pope because of his pro-life position don’t like him any more because of his anti-capitalist position. I thought I had read all these same things in your blog. I guess I misunderstood, and I am not intractable. I get it that I was wrong, but then I have to wonder how I got it so wrong? I do try to read properly, and read different news and information sources. If I could have so misunderstood this, I imagine that others have, too. I am usually not exceptional in any way, including what mistakes I make.

    If what the Pope has been saying is that greed, one of the well known seven deadly sins, is a sin, this is not news. So why is it reported as a new teaching? Or why does it seem to be?

    • Andy

      What the poe said – “And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.” He was quoting Basil a theologian who preached about the indiscriminate pursuit of wealth and ignoring/using the poor. He condemns money as an idol as causes so many problems.
      He is condemning what seems to be a drive in at least America, to make the golden calf into god. He has not condemned capitalism per se – rathe the is condemning a bastardization of it.

      • Mike Blackadder

        Yes and Francis’ main point is to challenge a faith in Capitalism, an attitude that all else must be sacrificed to fulfill the precepts of Capitalism as though it was inherently good, when the only grounds for calling a system good is in it’s ability to serve humanity; not the other way around.

        • The short form is “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” And I think that this applies *regardless* of the socioeconomic system in place.

          Now, I like money just fine. I see no point in hating money. But money is only a thing, and as Christians we’re supposed to use things and love people, not the other way around.
          Heh. And I just remembered that Pope St. John Paul II used to say that the opposite of love wasn’t hate, but use.

    • Ken

      Saint John Paul II and Benedict have spoken out against unfettered capitalism as well. For whatever reason the press has decided to cover this under Pope Francis. Why it is now being covered by the press is probably because the press is usually totally ignorant and or too lazy to do any basic research into the actual teachings of the Church. Unfortunately, this causes confusion. I’m glad you reached out to get clarification rather than just follow the media’s version of reality.

      • The US conservative press covered those critiques, usually along the line of “pope gives two cheers for capitalism”.

    • Pope Francis is, among other things, the first Latin American pope and like all popes takes his prior experience, including his economic experience, with him when he takes up the responsibilities of the papacy. Latin American capitalism is not the US style. It’s heavily dominated by cronyism and has a much weaker rule of law foundation. This makes things objectively suck and creates critics who are perfectly justified in their criticism.

      There are capitalist critiques of latin american economics that it is likely Pope Francis would like. It’s hard to tell though because so far as I can discern he’s never mentioned them pro or con which is his prerogative but it’s certainly frustrating for me.

  • Stu

    Part of the challenge is defining the terms. What is capitalism? I think G.K. sums it up for me.
    For instance, Capitalism is really a very unpleasant word. It is also a very unpleasant thing. Yet the thing I have in mind, when I say so, is quite definite and definable; only the name is a very unworkable word for it. But obviously we must have some word for it. When I say “Capitalism,” I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: “That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.” This particular state of things can and does exist, and we must have some word for it, and some way of discussing it. But this is undoubtedly a very bad word, because it is used by other people to mean quite other things. Some people seem to mean merely private property. Others suppose that capitalism must mean anything involving the use of capital. But if that use is too literal, it is also too loose and even too large. If the use of capital is capitalism, then everything is capitalism. Bolshevism is capitalism and anarchist communism is capitalism; and every revolutionary scheme, however wild, is still capitalism. Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas that the economic operations of to-day must leave something over for the economic operations of to-morrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless. If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

    The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital. I have made an heroic effort in my time to walk about the world always saying Proletarianism instead of Capitalism. But my path has been a thorny one of troubles and misunderstandings. I find that when I criticize the Duke of Northumberland for his Proletarianism, my meaning does not get home. When I say I should often agree with the Morning Post if it were not so deplorably Proletarian, there seems to be some strange momentary impediment to the complete communion of mind with mind. Yet that would be strictly accurate; for what I complain of, in the current defence of existing capitalism, is that it is a defence of keeping most men in wage dependence; that is, keeping most men without capital. I am not the sort of precision who prefers conveying correctly what he doesn’t mean, rather than conveying incorrectly what he does. I am totally indifferent to the term as compared to the meaning. I do not care whether I call one thing or the other by this mere printed word beginning with a “C,” so long as it is applied to one thing and not the other. I do not mind using a term as arbitrary as a mathematical sign, if it is accepted like a mathematical sign. I do not mind calling Property x and Capitalism y, so long as nobody thinks it necessary to say that x=y. I do not mind saying “cat” for capitalism and “dog” for distributism, so long as people understand that the things are different enough to fight like cat and dog. The proposal of the wider distribution of capital remains the same, whatever we call it, or whatever we call the present glaring contradiction of it. It is the same whether we state it by saying that there is too much capitalism in the one sense or too little capitalism in the other. And it is really quite pedantic to say that the use of capital must be capitalist. We might as fairly say that anything social must be Socialist; that Socialism can be identified with a social evening or a social glass. Which, I grieve to say, is not the case.

    Nevertheless, there is enough verbal vagueness about Socialism to call for a word of definition. Socialism is a system which makes the corporate unity of society responsible for all its economic processes, or all those affecting life and essential living. If anything important is sold, the Government has sold it; if anything important is given, the Government has given it; if anything important is even tolerated, the Government is responsible for tolerating it. This is the very reverse of anarchy; it is an extreme enthusiasm for authority. It is in many ways worthy of the moral dignity of the mind; it is a collective acceptance of a very complete responsibility. But it is silly of Socialists to complain of our saying that it must be a destruction of liberty. It is almost equally silly of Anti-Socialists to complain of the unnatural and unbalanced brutality of the Bolshevist Government in crushing a political opposition. A Socialist Government is one which in its nature does not tolerate any true and real opposition. For there the Government provides everything; and it is absurd to ask a Government to provide an opposition. (From the first chapter of An Outline of Sanity.)

    • Marthe Lépine

      I have found very interesting information about capitalism and socialism in the following article by Keith Michael Estrada, published on October 1, 2015 in Christian Democracy, at http://www.christiandemocracymagazine.com:
      Title: Un-Learning Catholic Thought on Capitalism and Socialism with the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry
      The article begins with comments about a publication by the American Enterprise Institute, but if you scroll down to a photo of Pope Pius XII, you will find that the article continues on with a number of quotes and good explanations of what the various popes meant by “socialism”.

      • Andy

        Thank you for sharing the article.

    • thisismattwade

      I’m currently re-reading this book. I find it refreshing and jovial (though also serious) every year or couple of years. I work in finance, so it’s an especially good reminder for me to get the heck out as soon as I can.

  • Willard

    Pope Pius XII wrote, “And what of a regime in which capitalism is dominant? Does it offer a prospect of real welfare for women? We have no need here to describe the economic and social consequences of this system. You know its characteristic signs and you yourselves labor under the burden it imposes: the excessive crowding of the population into the cities; the ever-growing and all-invading power of big business; the difficult and precarious condition of other industries, especially the crafts and even more especially agriculture; the disquieting spread of unemployment.”

    The Church is pretty clearly against capitalism and rightly so.

    • Since capitalism is, at present, facilitating the fleeing of growing amounts of people in the US to exurbs and out of dense packed cities, is overseeing the hollowing out of big businesses, and generally not acting as Pius XII wrote, perhaps what was being observed was not an intrinsic condition of the system but a transitory phase. We also know that dense packing populations under government dominated systems has had similar effects but is much less likely to reverse when economic conditions improve as capitalism’s packing tendencies.

      The Church and the popes didn’t stop writing about capitalism with Pius XII. Other opinions, far less negative have been penned. If we’re picking and choosing our popes, that’s not the Church talking but our own prejudices.

      Pius XII didn’t feel the need to get in the weeds and actually identify the problem. He says so in the quoted text. Pope Francis is similar when he confesses to economic ignorance and disclaims any obligation for a specific plan. These are signs that one should listen to the larger, moral message without buying into the not very thought through detail work. When a pope says he didn’t go through the details, believe him, and check accordingly.

      • These tend to be symptoms of the evils that Mark was talking about. But not always.
        For example, in the early 1900s, many Italian families sent the father over the US, alone, to earn money to pay for passage for his wife and children. In order to speed this process along, these men usually preferred to live in the cheapest tenements available, often eight to a room, with community bathrooms. In their minds, this was preferable to spending more on (relatively) posh living quarters, at the cost of delaying the reunification with their families in their new nation. Once their families arrived, they sought out more spacious living arrangements, typically the best they could prudently afford.
        But these tight, cramped quarters horrified the philanthropic women who formed the various ladies’ social leagues and aid societies in New York, which these men had reason to seek out. In mistaken compassion, the matrons of these aid societies campaigned, successfully, to have such tenements outlawed. In so doing, they ensured that wives and children would remain separated from their husbands and fathers longer than would otherwise have been necessary. This is but one example of how the road to Hell can often be paved by good intentions made into bad laws.

        • Actually knowing the needs of the poor instead of guessing is always a good thing. I agree.

    • AquinasMan

      Pius XII also wrote that the Church supports capital punishment, and such a penalty does not deprive a person of their right to life. The Church is clearly in favor of capital punishment.

      • chezami

        No. It’s not. The Catechism says to use it as sparingly as possible–essentially “never” in the first world and three popes and the entire American episcopacy have called for its complete abolition.

        • I have to disagree. I’ll admit that the only extenuating circumstance that justifies executing a prisoner in the first world is recidivism in murder — that is, that somebody manages to kill again in spite of being locked up. The other prisoners have a right to life too, and if we can’t protect them, then I’d say execution is prudent.

  • Philosophical Actuary

    “But we are under no obligation to be slaves to capitalist ideology, any
    more than we are obliged by the fact that our biology encourages lust
    and gluttony to become slaves to appetite.”
    Here I think is a good point to start from. While our biology encourages irrational behavior such as lust and gluttony, it is from the knowledge of our biology that we know that lust and gluttony are contrary to our good. We know these aren’t good because they are contrary to the natural end of our biology.
    This is similar to economics. Knowledge of economics gives us an understanding of what is good for the economy and ultimately for men. Economies have natural tendencies and ends, such that certain behaviors are irrational in that they oppose the end of economics, which is nothing other than human flourishing.
    Would you then be willing to make a study of economics, as you might of biology, in order to understand the goods and ends of economics, such that you avoid errors that will only ultimately undermine the human good?