Capitalism and the Catholic Social Tradition: Conversing with Father Robert Barron

July 17, 2015

“Back to Europe. A third model was added to the two models of the 19th century: socialism. Socialism took two main paths — the democratic and the totalitarian one. Democratic socialism became a healthy counterbalance to radically liberal positions in both existing models. It enriched and corrected them. It proved itself even when religious confessions took over… In many ways, democratic socialism stands and stood close to the Catholic social teachings. It in any case contributed a substantial amount to the education of social conscience.”

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Father Robert Barron’s piece this week for the National Catholic Register, “A Prophetic Pope and the Tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, considers the many words offered by Pope Francis on the prevailing economic order, the destruction of life—moral and biological—and our duty to the poor. 

Father Barron begins by acknowledging the concerns many supporters of capitalism are expressing since the general population started learning church teaching on these realities through the news media:

“…many supporters of the capitalist economy in the West might be forgiven for thinking that His Holiness has something against them. Again and again, Pope Francis excoriates an economy based on materialism and greed, and with prophetic urgency, he speaks out against a new colonialism that exploits the labor of those in poorer countries. With startling bluntness, he characterizes the dominant economic form in the developed world as ‘an economy that kills.’ Moreover, in a speech delivered in Bolivia, a country under the command of a socialist president, the Pope seemed, almost in a Marxist vein, to be calling on the poor to seize power from the wealthy and take command of their own lives. What do we make of this?”

Of course, we must accept and embrace the words of Pope Francis, and must, at the same time, as Father Barron submits, contextualize them so that they may be better “understood in the framework of Catholic social teaching.”

It is unfortunate that Father Barron accepts, without providing any analysis or critique, the idea that the Catholic social tradition rejects socialism absolutely while maintaining that what is needed is merely a refining of the capitalist system. In agreement with Robert Sirico and Michael Novak, Barron writes that Catholic Social Teaching, “clearly aligns itself against socialistic arrangements and clearly for the market economy.”

After highlighting the many advancements made, against the wishes of many capitalists, within our economic order—such as minimum wage, child labor laws, anti-trust provisions, worker unions—Barron touches on moral degradation vis-a-vis capitalism. “Won’t the drive for profit lead to the destruction of nature, unless people realize that the earth is a gift of a gracious God and meant to be enjoyed by all? This is precisely why the moral relativism and indifferentism that holds sway in many parts of the West,” and not necessarily capitalism itself, “—fostered by the breakdown of the family and the attenuating of religious practice—poses such a threat to the economy.” The existential threat to human life fails to make an appearance in Barron’s list of concerns related to capitalist social structures.

Barron reminds us in the end, “the Pope’s attention is not so much on the mechanisms of capitalism, but rather on the wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others.”

I have a few questions after reading Barron’s piece.

To begin, my initial qualms include what appears to be Barron’s ultimate siding with what he calls capitalism; the way he distinguishes the “mechanisms of capitalism” from the “wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others,” and his lack of substantial discussion on the topic of socialism and socialization. The first is embodied in the second and third qualm, so I will treat the second and third directly.

The mechanisms of capitalism aren’t the problem for Barron, Pope Francis, or Catholic Social Teaching, we are told, but rather, the abuse of the system by moral deficiencies and/or the decline of the institution of the family and “the attenuating of religious practice.”

The many structures found in human life are very difficult to distinguish entirely - there is a great deal of overlap. Barron appropriately stages the problem of capitalism for us in a way that may have made Robert Sirico (Acton Institute) and Michael Novak (Ave Maria University and American Enterprise Institute) smile.

It is common for supporters of capitalism to also be advocates of religious (hereafter including moral) and family life. Indeed, supporters of capitalism often invoke arguments related to religious and family life in their defense of their beloved economic system. I have not come across a consistent treatment of capitalism, religion, and family, grounded in the Catholic social tradition that concludes with a positive embrace of all three.

Barron agrees that capitalism can be used for unjust ends. What is not considered by Barron is whether injustice, greed, and indifference—including the “-isms” of materialism, irreligiousism, individualism, and relativism—generate and establish the structures of capitalism, while this economic system, at the same time, prefers and reinforces in society these very vicious “-isms” which function as capitalism’s life support.

Sirico and Novak (mentioned above) could be read as answering the question in the negative without providing any demonstration to support such a conclusion. This is particularly suspicious when the heritage of their economic thought rightfully disagrees with them.

Two pro-capitalist thinkers come to mind, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich August (F. A.) von Hayek.

Mises and Hayek, in very plain words, show that Barron’s missed question above should be answered in the affirmative. What is more devastating is that capitalism being generated and established by injustice, greed, indifference—including the “-isms” of materialism, irreligiousism, individualism, and relativism—while at the same time preferring and reinforcing in society these very vicious “-isms”, is seen by Mises and Hayek to be a good thing. We can easily find support for this reading of Mises and Hayek by turning to their works, The Anti-capitalistic Mentality (1956) and The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), respectively authored.

Mises and Hayek do a fine job of tying success with relativism, concern for others with defeat. Community life and solidarity are for the materially and technologically retarded, while advanced societies (if we can use the term inappropriately here) give free reign (with implied support, at a minimum, for social Darwinism) to the acceleration of the growth of capital.

It is quite fascinating to consider that the approval of success based on worldly measure, consumerism, and consumer relativism, along with the rejection of simplicity, asceticism, spiritual pursuits, and solidarity appears to contradict the Gospel of Jesus Christ detailed in the social praxis and doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Somehow, Sirico and Novak, and Barron along with them, believe that they are able to consistently support capitalism, family, and religious life at the same time. It would seem that capitalism cannot support family or religious life if we are to understand family and religious (or moral) life in a way compatible with the Catholic faith and natural law.

Family life has been hurt by U.S. capitalism, here and abroad. One need only look towards the many ills people find as caused—in whole or in part—by the current situation begotten by the prevailing economic order: abortion, contraception use, preference-tailored laboratory babies, sterilization, divorce and a reluctance to get married, emigrating (which often pulls families apart), children without parents for most of the day due to the need for multiple incomes, and so much more. 

I started the last paragraph by pointing at U.S. capitalism’s effect, here and abroad. It is important to see that capitalism in the U.S. cannot be isolated from other parts of the world in form or in effect. The latter is obvious. The former needs a clarification. Our economic system is not closed. It is not a national market. Since before the colonists rose up against the King, this land had been subject to international economics. To this day, our capitalism depends on, molds, and either elevates or destroys other capitalisms in the world. As if the aforementioned violence against life and family in the U.S. wasn’t enough, people in Latin America, for example, also suffer these injustices alongside incredible poverty, violence, and abuse.

Some may suggest that Francis not only has little issue with U.S. capitalism, but is staunchly against the “cronyism” masquerading as capitalism in the continent he calls home. This capitalism in Latin America exists, in large part, because of then-European economic models and now, primarily, U.S. models. This parallels Michael Novak’s discussion in his sixteenth chapter of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). Novak rejects the notion that the poor of the south are suffering at the hand of a powerful north. Instead, Novak says, Latin American Catholic bishops’ condemnation of capitalism, and the life given to it by the United States and other centers of economic power, should, instead, be directed inwards. 

“‘We are the victims,’ the bishops say. They accept no responsibility for three centuries of hostility to trade, commerce, and industry… After having opposed modern economics for centuries, they claim to be aggrieved because others, once equally poor, have succeeded as they have not… Before pronouncing moral condemnation, do they understand the laws which affect international currencies? Do they wish to enjoy the wealth of other systems without having first learned how wealth may be produced and without changing their economic teachings? The Peruvian aristocracy and military were for three centuries under their tutelage. Did the Peruvian bishops for three centuries teach them that the vocation of the layman lay in producing wealth, economic self-reliance, industry, and commerce, and in being creative stewards thereof?”

This, and even some teachings on economics by U.S. bishops, is nothing but an “intellectual failure”, Novak writes. Unfortunately, for Novak, we’re left intellectually incomplete by the missing treatment of the history of Latin America.

The English translation of Enrique Dussel’s A History of the Church in Latin America was published the year before Novak published the text we cited, and ten years before the release of the 1991 edition. Perhaps if Novak would have considered the history of the continent in question prior to casually dismissing the cry of the poor, and pitting the blame on their shepherds’ intellectual failures, his conclusions may have been a tad bit different.

While focusing on the history of the church in Latin America, because the social realities of human life overlap, Dussel also manages to outline the transformation of economic life in the new world. It is remarkable how easy it is to discover that the economic and physical violence attached to capital, and its pursuit of self-growth at the expense of others has been a reality in Latin America since the sixteenth century. It is evident that corruption, domination, death, and commodification have been a part of Latin American capitalism before the U.S. system appeared on stage. Wealth and power, which were often hard to distinguish, maintained their position, and were always more socially immobile than mobile, through the centuries. This along with the patronato system enforced a peace wherein the messengers of the gospel of God’s liberating love for the poor were extinguished by death or exile. It is hard to wonder why the Latin American church has had such “hostility to trade, commerce, and industry”, as Novak writes, when trade, commerce, and industry has perpetually resulted in the death of Latin American peoples.

Secularization and the revolutions did very little to help the poor of Latin America. The system of exploitation, while no longer able to feed off of Spain, offered the blood of natives to an eager, new nation, the United States. From revolutions to military coups, the U.S. system has respected the established tradition of accelerating the growth of capital for mostly private gain, utilizing military force through supported dictators in the region, with a cost of countless miserable lives. 

I digress.

Robert Barron does very little to support the distinction between capitalism, different manifestations of capitalism, and the misuse of capitalism by people. He also fails to give us reason to believe that a market economy and capitalism are the same thing, as he uses capitalism and market economy interchangeably in his article—an art form found in the work of Novak and Sirico, which often leads readers to believe that capitalism is the winner.

The conclusion that the Church supports capitalism does not seem to be grounded. John Paul II goes so far as to suggest a distinction between capital and the means of production in Laborem Exercens. It does not seem to be the case that capitalism is the final option for the Christian.

Inefficiency and the rejection of the right to private property are two main targets in Barron’s gentle rejection of socialism. I am not sure what socialism Barron is referring to.

To begin, the Church does not hold property rights as absolute. Secondly, even Marx and Engels qualified their rejection of private property. We read in the Manifesto of the Communist Party

“The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property. We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence. Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily. Or do you mean the modern bourgeois private property? But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism. To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion. Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power. When, therefore, capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.”

See the difference?

The socialization of some means of production, given that such socialization maintains its subjective character, is not rejected by the social magisterium—indeed, at times it is suggested. (See Laborem exercens).

Also, the Magisterium has also distinguished between democratic socialism and real socialism (see Centisimus annus, by John Paul II, or Without Roots by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger). Father Barron does not. (It’s also difficult to find the distinction in Hayek and Mises.) While real socialism is rejected by the Church, certain forms of democratic socialism, that is, socialization of certain means of production with the appropriate respect for the subjective characters of the members of society, are not. (You can see my piece on Laudato si’ for more.)

Lastly, socialism, and we correct Barron’s use of socialism by referring to “real socialism”, is accused of inefficiency. Let it suffice to say that the great capitalism that continues to dominate the world has been wholly inefficient at promoting family life, protecting human and organic life, and supporting economic participation at all levels.

Capitalists should be nervous.   

Keith Michael Estrada


Keith Michael Estrada is the founder of Students for a Fair Society at Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a member of the International Observatory of Young Catholics (Rome). Finishing his MA in philosophy at the aforementioned institution, he writes from Seattle-land, Washington. He can be reached at keithmichaelestrada.com.