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.


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?


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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