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Pius XI

Pius XI

Eric, Gannon, and Nate Schlueter have graciously asked us to present our arguments on the relationship between capitalism and Christianity. The subtitle is something to the effect of “can a good Christian” embrace “the morality of capitalism.” Whether I should or not, I will interpret this question in my own way and attempt to answer a few things right from the beginning.

First, I’m really not a very “good Christian.” I’m generally pretty great in theory and in theology, but I’m equally bad in practice. So, maybe I’m the wrong person to answer something for a good Christian. But, I’ll try my best.

Second, I dug out a paper I wrote in the spring of 1987, my freshman year of college at Notre Dame. The paper, overall, was horrendous, and I would’ve probably given myself a “D” were I one of my own students.

Sadly, no TARDIS has emerged, and I can only presume the last time lord, Russell Kirk, and his trusty sidekick, Sam Stoneburner, are off in a distant place and time, enjoying a wacky and witty adventure at the expense of a pig-headed and immoral race bent on destruction of itself or others. Therefore, the Brad of 2012 will not be bending the laws of time and grading the Brad of 1987. Plus, the Brad of 2012 would be more concerned about the Brad of 1987’s New Wave hairstyle.

There was, though, one thing in my essay from freshman year that made me laugh (with the argument, not at it). My paper was an analysis—from an Austrian economics—point of view. As a body, the American bishops had issued a study of economics in 1983, hoping to influence Ronald Reagan’s domestic policy. As I read through their report, I came to the conclusion that listening to a bishop talk about economics was about as productive and inspiring as listening to a politician talking about morality and ethics.

From the perspective of the Brad of 2012, I think our politicians have become only more corrupt, and the bishops have proven—as a body—incapable of governing themselves.

In the end, it seems, sadly, both the politicians and the bishops have decided that the upholding and wielding of power is not for justice, but for mutual protection and self aggrandizement. I’m not convinced we will ever recover from this current crop of politicians (I might even go so far as to argue the Constitution is dead and deserves a decent burial,but it’s death was long ago in a world that is only understood now in the light of darkening dusk), and I’m equally convinced that the horrors of abuse in the Catholic Church will render it as an institution and a faith suspect to the larger public for the next several generations. It will recover, as it must, but it will only do so slowly and only if the church hierarchy can maintain a house as wholesome as their own proclamations demand. If the laypersons do nothing, the bishops will remain unable to govern themselves.

Third, I honestly don’t know what is meant by a “morality of capitalism.” Simply put, it is not possible to have a capitalist “morality.” Morality is transcendent and universally true, it is particularly made manifest and manifested.

Capitalism possesses no soul and is incapable of either good or evil. It is merely a way of allowing an economy to run (yes, with capitalism, or at least a free market, it’s vital to use the passive construction of a sentence).

Even the term “Capitalism” itself is suspect. Originally, it meant something akin to a government-banking alliance, a plutocracy (an unholy alliance of governmental power and wealth) and later, after Marx, it meant a system of production in which the means of production are controlled by the few. I must admit, this makes almost no sense to me, as I have no ideas what the means of production might mean.

Though some folks such as Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk have claimed that Karl Marx invented the term, this is not factually correct. The first use of capitalism appeared in the London Standard (April 23, 1833), when Marx was fifteen and not yet writing for newspapers.

While “capitalism” might help foster an atmosphere or morality or immorality, it–in and of itself–is amoral. While some scholars such as Michael Novak have attempted to proclaim the goodness of a “democratic capitalism,” their efforts now seem dated, rooted in yesteryear’s struggle against Liberation Theology and having the weight not of thoughtful scholarship but of ideological propaganda.

We might ask how a Christian might approach the realms and spheres of politics, economics, and political economy.

In these areas, the Christian—at least in his own teachings—has much to offer.

From contemplation of this divine Model, it is more easy to understand that the true worth and nobility of man lie in his moral qualities, that is, in virtue; that virtue is, moreover, the common inheritance of man, equally within reach of high and low, rich and poor; and that virtue, and virtue alone, wherever found, will be followed by the rewards of everlasting happiness—Pope Leo XIII, 1891.

The Church wants those in poverty to “better their condition in life; and for this she makes a strong endeavor. By the fact that she calls men to virtue and forms them to its practice she promotes this in slight degree,” Leo continued. “Christian morality, when adequately and completely practiced, leads of itself to temporal prosperity.”

Ultimately, the best role any institution in society can take up is to promote virtue. As a byproduct, thankfully, prosperity follows.


Despite Leo’s pronouncements in the 1890s, Christians have often distrusted wealth if used as something other than a mere means to the end. Indeed, wealth is only good if one employs it “as a vehicle of spiritual love.”

This comes out clearly in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the earliest days of the Church, as found in the fifth chapter of St. Luke’s Acts. When the couple joined the Church, they sold a piece of property, but kept a part of the profits and “brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” When Peter rebuked each of them, they fell dead. The early Church demanded everything. “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” The results were astounding. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.”

The growing wealth of those in the Church especially worried the early Church Fathers. St. Ambrose claimed: “What you give to the poor man is not yours but his. For what was given for the common use, you alone usurp. The earth is all men’s and not the property of the rich.”

Another Church Father, St. Basil, stated: “He who strips a man of his garments will be called a thief. Is not he who fails to clothe the naked when he could do so worthy of the same title? It is the bread of the hungry that you hold, the clothing of the naked that you lock up in your cupboard.”

Each of these men was following the beliefs of the first Arch-bishop of Jerusalem, St. James. In his Catholic epistle, he wrote of the wealthy: “You have feasted upon earth: and in riotousness you have nourished your hearts, in the day of slaughter.”

What then about the institution of “The State”

In terms of the State, Jesus said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s; St. Paul, in his letter to the Christian church in Rome, said that there were a variety of levels of law: natural, Hebraic, gentile, Christian (as in the body of Christ), and modern (for his time) secular powers and governments, all ordained by God. From the time St. Paul wrote until the early decades of the fourth century, the Romans had a field day butchering the faithful.

What Jesus and St. Paul meant by the authority of Caesar is fairly clear (at least as I see it)—the sphere is political and political alone. It is not meant to encroach in realms of life beyond the political, such as the economic beyond paying taxes and tolls (property, ownership of self, though, is a central part of man’s material expression) or the educational (which is alone given to the family and the community). In his letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, St. Paul says that “For government, a terror to crime, has no terrors for good behavior.” The relationship is reciprocal. For the person to obey government, the government must also be exercising its legitimate authority and not reaching beyond it. If it proclaims terror upon what it is good, St. Paul implies, it is not legitimate. As Paul continues, the government should enforce: prohibitions on murder and theft (Romans 13: 9)

During the brief moment in which Church and Empire were almost one, St. Ambrose used his power as bishop to challenge an emperor who behaved poorly.

His friend, St. Augustine, cautioned that one should never place hopes in the political sphere. At best, it could secure the conditions for peace and the calling out of Pilgrims from the City of Man. At worst, the state is merely a gang of robbers that have gained legitimacy merely by staying power.

In Book IV of The City of God, St. Augustine reminded his readers (or listeners, as the case might be), that governments without justice are “but great robberies. For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on.”

Again, in Book XIX, St. Augustine returns to this theme, noting that a government enjoys some form of legitimacy only insofar as it secures peace.

The heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained . . . . It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adapts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced.

Catholic social teaching has tended to follow this Augustinian norm. While Pope Leo expressed a fear of socialism, Pope Pius XI tended to reject the primacy of any politics.

In 1931, Pius wrote “That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: “For man is older than the State,” and also “domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity” . . . it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes.”
In 1937:

Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.


A few things are made abundantly clear in the tradition of the Church.

The primary unit of society is the family; it is pre-political, and, therefore, above the state. It is pre-social, ordained by God from the beginning. Far from the abstract and abstruse state of nature envisioned by many of the early modern political philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, in which men live in a social vacuum and act as they please, the family exists within a natural state of authority. Indeed, the family is the central institution of Creation, as witnessed in Genesis. Therefore, Pope Leo XIII argued, each family is a state unto itself. When it conflicts with the large State, the family maintains its superiority. “We have said that the State must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and untrammeled action so far as is consistent with the common good and the interest of others,” Leo XIII wrote.

After family—and with family serving as a model—come the secondary institutions of subsidiarity. These various institutions of subsidiarity—church, family, voluntary associations, private schools, fraternal and sororal lodges, and mutual-aid societies, to name only a few—add a necessary and vital layer between the human person and the government.

For a Christian, “the State is itself the servant of a spiritual order which transcends the sphere of political and economic interests. Nor has it any right to absorb the whole of human life or to treat the individual simply as a means to its ends. The individual, the family, the Church, and the religious community all have their own autonomous spheres of activity and their independent rights” [Dawson, Religion and the Modern State, 136]

By its very nature, politics is everywhere and always imperialistic, no matter the form of government. Even our U.S. constitution—perhaps the finest document regarding politics any where and in any time—has failed miserably to restrain the power of the federal government, and even within the branches of government itself.

Simply put, politics rarely refuses to maintain itself nicely in its own sphere. In fact, politics rarely plays nice even in its own sphere.

Whatever its “preferencial option for the poor,” the Church has been especially suspicious of those who would use the political realm to promote equality. To celebrate nothing but equality is to distort God’s Creation. God made us different from one another, though each share in every other person’s humanity, across time and space. As Leo XIII argued:

For, He who created and governs all things has, in His wise providence, appointed that the things which are lowest should attain their ends by those which are intermediate, and these again by the highest. Thus, as even in the kingdom of heaven He hath willed that the choirs of angels be distinct and some subject to others, and also in the Church has instituted various orders and a diversity of offices, so that all are not apostles or doctors or pastors, so also has He appointed that there should be various orders in civil society, differing indignity, rights, and power, whereby the State, like the Church, should be one body, consisting of many members, some nobler than others, but all necessary to each other and solicitous for the common good.

To level is to lessen who or what we are meant to be. To level also assumes a duty that is not man’s, but God’s alone. It perverts justice, that which gives each man his due.

And now?

For my own personal view, I believe that Christians as a whole give way too much credence to St. Paul’s admonition to offer to Caesar what is Caesar’s—at least to use the words of Jesus—in Romans 13. I’m not questioning St. Paul, I’m questioning our emphasis on a few lines in very complicated letter dealing with the nuances of natural, Hebraic, Greek, Church, and Roman law.

Regardless, the modern and post-modern state is something fundamentally new in the world. In its reach, scope, and power, it is much more akin to a secular Church than it is to a political state. With its expansive bureaucracy, its military prowess, and its significant influence (if not outright control) on education—it has assumed powers that were never meant to belong to it.

During the first 2/3 of the twentieth century, the proponents of an expansive state—in the free as well as in the unfree world—learned that a soft despotism will be much easier (though, much more gradual) to implement than a hard despotism.

Just because the packaging is prettier does not make product less poisonous. “It may be harder to resist a Totalitarian State which relies on free milk and birth-control clinics than one which relies on castor oil and concentration camps,” Christopher Dawson wrote in 1935 [Religion and the Modern State, 108]

Yet, even our Federal Government (under the supposed restraint of the U.S. Constitution) has created police forces to capture slaves, beat the native peoples to a soulless pulp, promoted racism, confiscated the property of thousands of people of Japanese descent, concentrating them in camps, and developed horrific devices which wiped out two civilian cities in East Asia in 1945.

What do we really expect of the American government? Should we be surprised that our government steals from us and empowers the failed wealthy with so-called stimuli packages? Should we be totally surprised that there are now so many security and anti-terrorist agencies watching over us that no federal bureaucracy can even keep track of them all? Should we be totally surprised that we now live in a society that permits our sons and daughters to be groped and sexually assaulted by ignorant hordes armed with federal authority to police our airports?

So, what about capitalism? If I understand the term to mean a freely functioning economy, I say yes, the Church and Christianity should support it. Why? Not because of the market’s efficiency or inefficiency, but because of the free part. Even if the free market proved terribly inefficient, I would still favor it over an unfree economy.

Christianity has always embraced the freedom to do good. For a virtue to be a virtue, it must be chosen. If a political agency forces us to feed the poor, tend to the sick, and visit those in prison, we might very well be doing well, but we are not doing good.

Virtue is a reflection of God in our souls, not in our political institutions. Freedom is the freedom to do wrong. Far more importantly, though, it is the freedom to do right.

Books on the political economy may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreTranscribed from a talk given October 19, 2012, Hillsdale College, Michigan.

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2 replies to this post
  1. This covers a lot of ground, Brad, and as St. Russell would say, it is "quite satisfactory." Apropos of everybody's shaky understanding of "capitalism" (whoever first used it, it is still a marxist term, sort of like the war-state advocates appropriating the definition of "isolationism"), I remember trying to come to grips with my lingering suspicion of the "malefactors of great wealth" back in the late 60s, having reeducated myself along traditionalist conservative lines by about 1968. In 1969 I first met M. Stanton Evans, widely understood to be one of the main forces behind the "fusionism" that then pretty much defined the conservative movement (how quaint all these terms now sound!). I was talking with Stan over much bourbon after a talk he gave at St. Louis U, and expressed to him my reluctance to embrace "the market" fully. In his most droll voice he said, "Wellll, it just depends on how prosperous you want to be." You're right, of course, that "capitalism" in itself is amoral, but Stan also understands that at its best a free market, conducted in the context of the moral foundations of the West, is unparalleled at producing prosperity. It combines quite nicely with Christian morality, so long as it stays subordinate. Our friend Gary Wolfram has always said that the market is so powerful that it requires religion to keep it in check. Without getting any deeper into a very complex problem, it seems to me that on one level at least we can keep it rather simple: Is it not the modern state, in the pursuit of power and/or utopian "justice," that disrupts the balance between a Christian view of the world and a reasonably free (and prosperous) society, by making war on the family and the Church? And isn't all centralization dangerous?

  2. I fear the market as Socrates wisely feared the Agora. At its' best, the market teaches the virtue of self-government and self-reliance. At its' worse, it teaches the vices of vanity and jealous resentement. Is it a wonder that a consumerist society brought up on corporate advertising and taught to worship the new and demand the better elects to adhere to an anti-market politics? To the hoi polloi, the government ought to give them more in the same way a supermarket ought to give them a discount. This is dangerous to republican citizenship and also happens to drive republics into mass debt and unemployment.

    As one who runs his own small business I can tell you that the only real joy is in the knowledge that I am productive and independent. There is even a grudging joy in payimg my taxes becuse I feel I have bought a share in the republic with my work and can opine on the public good not on the basis of birthright abstract human rights, but rather because I pay for the republic.

    But is this a function of capitalism? No. It is a function of liberal education making me a better man and citizen. Without liberal education, the market will corrupt the people. Jefferson was right to fear the effects of industry on a republican citizenship.

    To leave men alone is always bad, they must be restrained as Hobbes taught. Perhaps Christianity is a flawed restraint, but Machiavelli had it right when he noted that Christianity must be preserved lest something worse take its' place.

    The problem now is that all law is geared towards regulation and control of economy to fulfill unrestrained appetite rather than toward the restraint of appetite, or more simply: limited government.


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