Does the Church Condemn Capitalism?

The headline of a report on a recent survey summed up its findings: “Capitalism Against Christianity, Americans Believe.”

Is that good news or bad news? What should Catholics think? Does Catholic social teaching imply opposition to capitalism?

The answers you get to those questions would no doubt differ dramatically depending on whom you ask. Although it’s true that faithful Catholics have divergent opinions about matters involving the interpretation of Catholic social teaching and the assessment of economic facts, much of the heat such differences generate is due less to fundamental differences of principle and more to failure to take into account the wisdom of Voltaire. “If you wish to converse with me,” he said, “define your terms.”

Capitalism, like a handful of other words common in contemporary social and political discourse — rights, liberalism, and religion come to mind — has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. This fact alone should be enough to warn anyone seriously concerned with furthering dialogue with a view to discovering the truth (as opposed to preaching to the choir or rallying the troops or — pick your metaphor — otherwise engaging in polemics) that the term should be handled with care.

And yet, by and large, it isn’t. Acrimonious debates about whether the Church “approves” or “condemns” capitalism have raged for decades, in venues ranging from populist blogs to academic conferences. Years of participation in and observation of such debates has convinced me that much of the discussion is entirely fruitless. The reason is the chameleonic character of the term capitalism.

Make no mistake: There are serious debates to be had about what the Church teaches about economic systems; about what the relationship is between that branch of moral theology known as Catholic social teaching and that branch of social science know as economics; about how the norms laid down in the social encyclicals can or ought to be applied to whatever economic policy happens to be under discussion. These discussions are necessary and potentially fruitful.

But on the specific question of whether the Church condemns capitalism, debates tend to degenerate quickly into an unproductive back-and-forth. Among the more sophisticated, it’s an exchange of encyclical quotations; among the less refined, it becomes name calling (“Socialist!” “Randian!”).

This goes on despite the exemplary model right before our eyes: Centesimus Annus, published by Blessed John Paul the Great twenty years ago this month. Asking himself the question whether, upon the demise of Marxist economies in the late 1980s, capitalism should be the model and goal of every nation on earth, he answered thus:

The answer is obviously complex. 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.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the issue since John Paul wrote these, but I have yet to see anyone put it better. His formulation captures exactly the problem at the heart of many debates. When they hear capitalism, many people think “entrepreneurship, commerce, innovation and technological progress, private property.” Of course the Church approves these things!

Others, however, hear “greed, materialism, cut-throat competition, exploitation of workers.” Of course the Church condemns capitalism!

My modest proposal, then, is to avoid altogether the kind of debate I’ve characterized here. When someone asks, “Does the Church condemn capitalism?,” try to uncover what they really want to know. Are they concerned about the health care system, or unemployment, or public sector unions? Possibly you can have a productive discussion about well-defined and feasibly narrow questions, such as: In Catholic social teaching, are the concepts of the just wage and the market wage synonymous? Is health care a basic human right and if so, does the Church’s teaching oblige the government to guarantee universal coverage? What is do the encyclicals say about organized labor?

If you must answer the initial question, then consider taking a cue from John Paul. Begin your answer this way: “Well, if by capitalism you mean…” You may not end up agreeing with your interlocutor, but at least you have a better chance of identifying where the real disagreements lie.

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Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute. He is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and, most recently, of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). He is the book review editor for The Journal of Markets & Morality and is also executive director of Schmiesing earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania.

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