Free-Market Capitalism: the "Official" Economic System of the Church?

Among the many irrational behaviors I am probably passing on to my two-year old is heatedly arguing with commentators on TV and the radio. I really let a radio personality have it recently, even pulling the car over on the side of the road to hastily scribble some notes for this essay. My daughter took note from her car seat.

The guy in question was one of those Christian financial advisors who offer to show you how to get rich according to “biblical principles.” The theology involved with this sort of thing strikes me as problematic, to say the least, but what really got under my skin was his implication that the official economic system of the Catholic Church is free-market capitalism. He began by pointing out (and he’s right about this) that young people tend to prefer socialism to capitalism1 and offered these explanations: young people have not been properly educated about economics; Catholic youth in particular simply don’t know that the Church calls for economic freedom (which she does—that’s true). “Socialism” for this man (and understandably so, given the state of education in this country generally, not just that of young people) means government control of our economic life, presumably like with the Affordable Care Act. “Freedom,” by contrast, means limited government with only “reasonable” regulations. Sound familiar? This is a little piece of the broader push to line up faithful Catholics behind the Republican Party.

This really gets under my skin because it suggests that the Church is on the side of the rich and powerful, who are the primary beneficiaries of free-market ideology. This goes totally against the entire thrust of the New Testament and the writings of the saints and doctors. Unfortunately, alignment with wealth and power is not new in Church history, but it is certainly not part of Church teaching. On the contrary, we are to work for the common good (the virtue of solidarity), not our own selfish good, and our desire for wealth is to be limited—genuine human need is the limiting principle—not utterly boundless. The values of free-market capitalism are diametrically opposed to these values: we are to work for individual gain, and desire for wealth should know no bounds. We see this upside-down system of values reflected in what I call the Cult of the Entrepreneur: we worship Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg because they represent the perfect realization of these values. 

That young people should be opposed to capitalism and in favor of socialism ought actually to be a hopeful sign, especially if it’s also true of young Catholics. It may mean that they are rejecting our society’s futile search for fulfillment in wealth, prestige, and earthly pleasure. It could mean that they are looking for more than selfish gain and see in socialism something of its old idealism: solidarity with all people, cooperation and mutual aid versus Darwinian competition, and the rest. I doubt very much that they are yearning for East Germany.

And there are alternatives to capitalism that might satisfy this desire of young people for something better while still being compatible with Church teaching. The social justice encyclicals have tended to condemn socialism because certain versions of it violate principles of the natural law, like private ownership and markets as effective distributors of goods and services. But there are versions of socialism that actually extend ownership by giving workers themselves control over their work places and the wealth they produce, as well as allowing for markets.2 What makes these alternatives socialist is that workers themselves own the means of production (basically, they own their workplaces) and they and all stakeholders in productive enterprises have control over them. This is unlike capitalist enterprises where only a tiny minority control and own them. The products and services these enterprises produce could then be distributed through markets. This would align with Church teaching by both promoting ownership of the means of production (actually, socialism in this sense would represent an improvement over capitalism when it comes to promoting wide distribution of ownership) and distribution would be by markets, not centralized, bureaucratic planning.

And there is precedent for this in the Church. Dorothy Day, whose cause for canonization is under way, advocated an alternative to capitalism (which she referred to as “this rotten system”) that has similarities to the one sketched above, although imbued here with religious significance and actually far more radical, as this statement from her associate Robert Ludlow makes clear:

“We believe in worker-ownership of the means of production and distribution, as distinguished from nationalization. This to be accomplished by decentralized co-operatives and the elimination of a distinct employer class. It is revolution from below and not (as political revolutions are) from above. It calls for widespread and universal ownership by all men of property as a stepping stone to a communism that will be in accord with the Christian teaching of detachment from material goods and which, when realized, will express itself in common ownership. ‘Property, the more common it is, the more holy it is,’ St. Gertrude writes.”3

I wonder what my radio commentator would have made of this! 

But the point is only that it is at least simplistic, and in my view false, to identify a particular secular ideology as the Church’s official view. I think this is clearly the case with free-market ideology. I also think that Catholics are under pressure from the right wing to orient themselves to the Republican Party and that the constant advocacy for free-market capitalism on mainstream Catholic media is part of that prodding. It’s placing religion at the service of politics, exactly what religion’s enemies have always accused it of doing.

No doubt the fellow on the radio had no ill intentions. We all have our views about politics and economics. But it is pretty audacious to say, as many do, that free-market capitalism is Catholicism’s “official” view. And we always have to be ready to combat the encroachment of worldliness creeping into the life of the Church—but maybe just not while driving.

Doran Hunter

2  See for example Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) and Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (New York: Haymarket Books, 2012). For that matter see Leon Trotsky’s “Toward Capitalism or Toward Socialism?”!