My Problem With Catholic Social Teaching

Pope Francis’ time as Pontiff has been one of misunderstanding, i.e., he says something and everyone takes his words out of context.  His latest apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is no exception to that.  This time, however, instead of the usual left-wing leaping to conclusions, the opposite side has gotten into the act based on some of his remarks re capitalism.  We thought he was a conservative, they say, but then find stuff like a denouncement of “unfettered” capitalism.  (Finding such capitalism except at the highest levels of the world is hard to do, really, but…)

Conservatives are surprised that an institution like the Catholic Church, which dodged the bullet of radical liberalism that struck Main Line Protestantism, would come up with something like this.  Part of the problem is that “conservatism” is an equivocal term, meaning different things to different people.  What Francis is saying is of a piece with Catholic social teaching since the nineteenth century.  The story behind it–and indeed the story behind Catholic social and economic teaching–needs to be understood in view of the way the Catholic Church developed and has interacted with the world around it.

Roman Catholicism, as the name implies, is…well, Roman.  The Roman Empire was a brutal, patronage-driven system where power and money were closely intertwined and which did not have a very efficient banking system.  The Church, when it finally got the upper hand in the fourth century, moved to transform this from patronage to charity, but its efforts were not uniformly successful.  The thing that broke the patronage system more than anything else was the collapse of the Western Empire, at which point we have the Middle Ages.

In the midst of all of this the Church, mindful of Our Lord’s admonitions about God and Mammon, faced an internal reaction against respectability-induced laxity–monasticism.  Now here was a deal–a group of people could renounce the world (including wealth) in a big way and live for God in community.  Unfortunately one of the hard lessons that early monastic efforts (and that includes those of Jerome, who translated the Vulgate) is that a religious community without a workable economic game plan wouldn’t last, and every religious community formed from Benedict’s onward has had one.

With starvation in the rear view mirror, the success of these communities–and the Catholic concept of the religious life as the greatest way one could and should be a Christian–allowed the Church to indulge one of its pet prejudices–that business, and the people who conducted it, were basically dirty.  The result of that is that business in Catholic countries is basically dirty.  That wasn’t too bad of a deal in the Middle Ages, where neither technology nor the political/financial systems made wealth centralization possible to the extent that it was later. (The biggest centralizer of wealth in that time was the Church itself, but it’s always easier to find fault with others than to fix your own).

When secular governments and institutions actually could challenge the hegemony of the Church, several things happened.  In some countries the Church split off or was nationalized, i.e., the Reformation.  Getting property out of the hands of the Church was a boon to budding capitalist roaders and rulers.  In countries that remained Catholic the Church kind of went along with things, which worked until revolutions hit secular and ecclesiastical ruler alike.  And these revolutions were almost uniformly anti-Christian in their nature, which only encouraged the church to dig in with whatever “reactionary” rulers they could find.

As the nineteenth century wore on, the effects of really unfettered capitalism further corroded the Church’s hold on society, both at the top and at the bottom.  Almost as serious was the emergence of a middle class, a group of people whom Roman Catholicism wasn’t really ready to deal with.  At this point the Church began to proclaim the need for their Christian message to impact the way business was actually done and people actually made their living instead of simply calling people to withdraw.  This included support for the various social welfare systems being trotted out at the time and syndicalism (the fancy Continental term for trade unionism).

But the Church had its blind spots.  One of them was a lack of differentiation between large and small business people.  Capitalism’s greatest weakness is its tendency to centralise through the elimination of competitors and the development of monopolies.  You can fix this problem by breaking up the monopolies from time to time (a simple fact that has eluded our banking regulators, who can’t get rid of “too big to fail” to save their lives).  But the Church doesn’t seem to think any more of small businesses than large ones–they’re all tarred with the same brush, it seems.

Another development the Church didn’t come to grips with was the United States.  The idea here is that a business could be easily started and develop in a system of consistently and fairly applied laws (fairly meaning that everyone was equal before the law).  The last point is a way of decoupling the acquisition of money and political power, perhaps not completely enough but sufficiently to give opportunity for economic success to a wider group of people.  Although such a regime is not unique to this country, it’s one which was developed on the largest scale here, at least up to now.

Getting back to the old country, Catholic social and political action was always a step behind the secular, socialist and communist kind, especially after Marxism-Leninism reared its ugly head.  The twentieth century saw all types of Christianity fight for their lives against a system which sought the church’s annihilation, and under those circumstances social teaching got put on the back burner.  But with that gone (sort of) we’re back to attacking the “evils of capitalism”.

With that as prologue there are several things worth noting about the Church’s social teaching.

The Catholic Church doesn’t have a practical game plan for a successful economy.  Its concept of dirty business and a concept of the laity which leaves much to be desired isn’t much of an incentive to inspire Catholics to do business at all, let alone in a Christian way.   Catholic lay people have been successful in business largely in spite of the Church and not because of it.

Collectivistic solutions are not the answer for problems created by an individualist system.  That’s the basic weakness of Liberation Theology and, for that matter, Marxism.  Collectivistic solutions of this kind inevitably concentrate power–and money–in the hands of the “vanguard” that leads it, which defeats the purpose of the movement.  I hate to see the Church, having forgotten what it suffered (and still does in places like Cuba) under communism, play footsies with these people, but that’s what’s going on.

A centralised institution will always see a centralised solution.  One of the better products of the Catholic intellectual tradition is distributism.  Its chief proponents are people like Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and of course the incomparable J.R.R. Tolkien.  The key concept here is subsidiarity, i.e., pushing the decision making processes down the system as far as practical.  That’s why distributists are enamored with cooperatives and the like.

Catholics will trumpet their support of this system.  But an Ultramontane system like Roman Catholicism during the last two centuries is ill-suited to communicate subsidiarity in its own life.  In the Middle Ages, with the poor communications and the extensive rights of secular rulers over the church, this idea had credibility, but not now.  (It’s interesting to note that Tolkien took some of his inspiration for the Shire, a distributist model if there ever was one, from unCatholic American Appalachia, but that’s another unlearned lesson).

Catholicism and its critics need to differentiate between small and large/monopolistic enterprises.  As noted earlier, capitalism’s greatest fault is the tendency to centralize and monopolize.  We need to fix the system by breaking up monopolies, not grinding down small businesses in the name of social justice.  And we need to realize that capitalism, like any human system, has flaws; these flaws need to be addressed objectively and not always in the context of an ideal.

For me personally, Catholic social teaching is a big deal, because it was the immediate reason why I left the Church for the last time.  As I noted in an earlier piece:

Back in the early 1980′s, I was involved in a Catholic Charismatic prayer group.  We were under a great deal of pressure, some of which was of our own making and some of which came from a Church which didn’t really care much for what we were doing.  It was also the days of “if you want peace, work for justice,” the nuclear freeze, and other left-wing emphases which tended to deflect hierarchy and faithful alike from their relationship with God.

A major turning point for me took place on day when, while discussing things with one of our prayer group leaders, she mentioned that, because of the high tuition, she could not afford to send her eight children to Catholic school.  So they went to public school.

That revelation was the beginning of the end of me as a Roman Catholic.  I concluded that any church that was too bourgeois and self-satisfied not to subsidise its own needful children to attend the schools it wanted them to attend was too bourgeois to be an advocate for social justice.  So I took my leave on a course that’s best encapsulated in The Preferential Option of the Poor.

Charity–and real social justice–begins at home, especially when “home” is the single largest religious institution on the planet.  I’m cautiously optimistic that Pope Francis will move the Church in that direction, which would be a salutary thing for all of us.

5 thoughts on “My Problem With Catholic Social Teaching”

Leave a Reply