A quiz on Catholicism and Capitalism

A quiz on Catholicism and Capitalism September 4, 2011

These three YouTube videos reveal, in a striking sort of way, the spirit of the Church’s position on capitalism, by engaging with Michael Moore’s documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story.

Here’s the quiz, good luck!

Who speaks most closely with the Church on capitalism in the following videos?

(a) Michael Moore

(b) Fr. Robert Barron

(c) Fr. Jonathon Morris

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  • Cindy

    I would say the 1st clip is 1min 11 seconds. The 2nd clip over 8minutes. The 3rd clip 2mins 37secs… Of course the 2nd clip by far speaks way more to the church. I think the 2nd clip is perfect, and fair. I cant disagree with anything in the 2nd clip. Actually the 2nd clip makes the point of picking and choosing elements of both sides. Maybe the ‘cafeteria catholics’ and their picking and choosing are on to something..lol.. Or maybe that’s just me! 🙂

  • At the end of this message, I put a fuller version of the passage from Centesimus Annus that Fr. Barron quotes from.

    It seems to me given the levels of poverty and hunger in the United States, and the inequality of income and wealth, we’re experiencing at least a move toward the second definition of capitalism that John Paul II describes—the version he rejects. And to be partisan about it, it seems to me that this is the kind of capitalism that the current crop of Republican presidential candidates want us to have more of. They don’t want a “strong juridical framework.” They want as little of a juridical framework as possible.

    I thought Fr. Barron was a little too evenhanded. I haven’t seen the Michael Moore film, but this is not at all a purely theoretical discussion. There are many conservatives (and some Catholics among them) who argue things like “taxation is theft.”

    Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

    If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

  • Sam:

    As it happens, four of my closest friends (one is a priest) meet for meditation and Mass on the first Sunday of most months. Today was one of those blessed Sundays. And, we happened to watch this movie together a year ago.

    The answer to your question depends on whom you have in mind when you speak of “the Church.”

    If the voice you’re asking about is the ethical center of people who are baptised as Catholics and attend Mass with some regularity, then sadly: Clip number three comes closest. It is a voice which clings to material attachments, indignantly defending the indefensible.

    If you mean which clip sounds most like the Catholic hierarchy’s voice: Clip number two.

    If, however, you mean to ask which clip speaks with a voice closest to my spiritual companions, the people whose counsel I trust and whose love I value more than anything else of this world: Only clip number one comes close.

  • The Pachyderminator

    Hmm, let’s see…which is most in line with the Church’s position: a selection of one to two minute clips of people spouting off predictable and unsubtle soundbites; or someone quietly speaking for eight minutes, examining others’ soundbites carefully, and leaving a trail of quotations from social encyclicals, which also just happens to be the second of three options, and also just happens to be the only one not from a major news network? What a well designed multiple choice question!

  • Joan Braune

    I’m with Michael Moore on this one. I agree with the comment above, that Fr. Barron is trying too hard to be even-handed. Fr. Barron seems to be trying to make CST appear mainstream and moderate, which maybe serves his apologetic purpose but misses some of the radicalism of Catholic Social Teaching.

    I don’t think the JPII quote that Fr. Barron cites is as crystal clear as he makes out. And there are all kinds of ambiguities that he’s ignoring. The “market” is not necessarily the same thing as “capitalism”; there are socialists, for example, who are for “market socialism” (e.g. Dr. Schweickart at Loyola in Chicago). Supporting “freedom” is also not a uniquely capitalist position. And “private property” in the context of a Marxist critique of capitalism and “private property” in a papal encyclical affirming a right to private ownership do not necessarily mean the same thing; the former is concerned with ownership of the means of production (factories, major industries and banks), while the latter may be more concerned about homes, small farms, and local businesses.

    Fr. Barron also seems to blithely lump together socialism and the Soviet Union, which is problematic; what about the many Marxists and non-Marxist socialists who insist that socialism has not yet been tried? He is treating them like they don’t exist.

  • It’s true, Fr. Morris really plays up the fallacy (guilt by association). He ignores many others who have spoken out against capitalism such as Chesterton, Belloc, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI….

  • Tim Leonard

    I think it is the kind of so-called even handedness of Fr. Barron’s presentation that permits the evengelical capitalism of Fr. Morris seem Christian or even Cathollic. Read Zizek’s account of subjective and objective violence in his book “Violence.” Morris probably thinks there is no relationship between his cellphone and the oppression of Congolese youth who mine the Coltan necessary for that instrument. Barron probably doesn’t either, because his orientation ir more focused on individual morality than on distributive justice.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Good call on Zizek!

  • brettsalkeld

    Barron is certainly accurate. He could have, on the other hand, taken the time (or the risk?) to be a little more prophetic. Has the capitalism that JPII decries taken hold in the US today? I think that question answers itself. If that’s the case, what is the responsibility of the Church?

    Another concern with this debate? What gets called “socialism” in the US is typically nothing of the sort. Of course the Church doesn’t support full-blown socialism, but in the US, regulating banks and Big Pharma/Insurance gets called socialism. JPII explicitly calls for a strong juridical framework. What do those Catholics who denounce regulation in the name of Christianity think he means by that? I live in a place that more closely regulates both and everyone knows that Canada is not communist Russia.

    If Michael Moore could avoid the obvious exaggerations that Barron points out, he’d do more good. Much of his prophetic utterance hits close to the mark.

  • The Pachyderminator

    Barron is certainly accurate. He could have, on the other hand, taken the time to be a little more prophetic.

    By being prophetic, I suppose you mean Jeremiadic denunciations of whomever should be blamed? I don’t think Fr. Barron sees that as his job, and he’s right. Prophecy can’t be demanded as a matter of course, but clear, accurate explanations of Church teaching can be.

    Has the capitalism that JPII decries taken hold in the US today? I think that question answers itself. If that’s the case, what is the responsibility of the Church?

    Probably, to some extent at least. The responsibility of the church is of course to point this out and suggest solutions (alternately, they can suggest giving it up as hopeless and hunkering down for a revolution, but that kind of prophecy can only be heeded by a few or it becomes self-unfulfilling). Here, however, I use “the church” to mean, on the whole, the laymen.

    • brettsalkeld

      No, I don’t necessarily mean a Jeremiad, though that is one possibility. Here’s another:

      I think Barron does a nice job here of being prophetic, even while clearly articulating Church teaching. The two are not exclusive.

  • Can I agree that the current field of Republican candidates is not at all in line with Catholic Social Teaching and still be nonpartisan? I’d like to think we can critique specific stances and policies without sacrificing evenhandedness – which is exactly what CST does. Centesimus Annus, among others, offers some pretty pointed critiques of both capitalism (especially in the form preferred by the tea party, to translate to our current US context) and socialism (which nobody in this context is advocating, except in a right-wing dreamworld populated by left-wing strawmen). My point here is that an evenhanded CST approach will call for varying critiques depending on the social context, this being governed by a fundamental concern for human dignity and the common good rather than party platforms.

    • brettsalkeld


  • Multiple problems with the question of “who is most accurate?”

    1) “Socialism” is not one thing.

    2) CST’s judgment of “socialism” (and of “capitalism” for that matter) is not entirely consistent over time.

    3) CST has often been inaccurate in its descriptions of “socialism,” in part because it tends to reduce socialism to one thing.

    4) Barron is inaccurate in describing CST on socialism (he reductively summarizes CST as being “against socialism”) which is itself often inaccurate on socialism (which is not one thing).

    5) Barron may be right in pointing out where Moore strays from the later social teaching of John Paul II, but JPII’s later social teaching should not be equated with “what the church teaches about capitalism.”

    6) Even if Moore’s teaching takes a “more radical” judgment against capitalism than the “moderate” or “consensus” view of what CST “teaches,” this does not necessarily put him outside the bounds of “church teaching” at all. Dorothy Day would agree with Michael Moore’s judgment of capitalism, her critique grounded strongly in CST. I do not see Fr. Barron making videos criticizing Dorothy Day’s view of capitalism.

    Brett — A question. What do you mean by “full blown socialism”? And why do you think the church would not support it? Would the church, for example, condemn the socialism of both past and present indigenous communities? Such forms of community strike me as clear examples of “full blown socialism.”

    • brettsalkeld

      I was thinking of state-level socialism. I don’t think the Church condemns the “socialism” of indigenous communities. Of course, I don’t think those communities play variations of the Internationale either.

  • Fr. Jonathon Morris is loud but wrong.

    • brettsalkeld

      Yes, it is clear what gets his goat and it’s not the selling the poor for a pair of sandals.

  • Great stuff, everyone!


    • Sam:

      Your original quiz question is: “who speaks most closely with the Church on capitalism in the following videos?” All the comments on Socialism and even-handedness are well-written, but they are orthogonal to your original question. And I believe the “correctness” of one choice or another depends, as I stated earlier, on how you parse “the Church.” I believe further that what or who we think is legitimately “the Church” correlates overwhelmingly with what we ourselves believe, whether we realize that or not. “The Church” and “its” teaching very easily become a projection of our own belief system, propping that system up, protecting us from challenge to our beliefs, justifying the arguments we make to to each other — and more importantly to ourselves — about why we need to remain ever-so-pure and pious as we are. Is that really what Christ’s mission is all about?

      Just out of curiosity: Whose “Church” did you intend to ask about?

  • I don’t think I’m making many waves here when I say I believe the Catholic position to be somewhere between videos 1 (Moore) and 2 (Fr Barron). The tradition of the Church is not, as Fr Barron says, in principle against the practice of hiring someone for a wage to perform a service or provide a good. However, it comes down firmly in favour of fair wages and fair working conditions; something which the current economic structure (the form which capitalism takes today) seeks to systematically undermine, and has fairly consistently sought to undermine since the 1600’s.

    There are some fairly robust alternatives (to both the Scotch economists and the Marxian economists) which parallel CST: the Guild socialism of GDH Cole; the Distributism of Arthur Penty, the Chesterton brothers and Hilaire Belloc; the Social Credit movement of CH Douglas; all taking at least some inspiration from the (Anglican) Christian socialism of John Ruskin, William Morris and FD Maurice as well as from CST.

    Great discussion, by the way!

  • God

    We would have better luck leaving Catholicism out of it and simply striving for ‘socialism’.

    • I agree with God. (An odd thing that, but somewhat comforting.) What is the twisting yourself up in a knot with a tradition that is at best ambiguous. Best just come out with what you actually want, and fight for it.

      The one problem with a moral argument against capitalism is nothing is really defined. What is capitalism? What is a free market, or does that even exist? What is socialism? What is the State? The Magisterium cannot answer any of these questions, or aims not to, so it is completely useless in this regard. For example, the Bible says thou shalt not steal, but is it theft if someone stole it first? (The Brecht quip of what is robbing a bank compared to opening another bank.) The problem is that you are trying to impose metaphysical categories onto some very concrete, dialectical, and constantly changing conditions. At that point, dogma becomes worthless.

  • Kurt

    It would be a more helpful discussion if rather than just speaking of capitalism and socialism, we would expand the catagorization to contrast and compare capitalism, christian democracy, social democracy and marxism.

    And a minor and secondary point, I will defend the singing of the Internationale. It is the anthem of the Socialist International its the tens of millions of good people affiliated with the SI. It is an honorable song.