Capitalism: The Bane of Christendom

by Church Militant  •  •  February 20, 2016   

Can a society based on unlimited acquisition of wealth be a Catholic society?

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Everyone wants to live in a flourishing economy. When Americans say "flourishing economy," they of course mean a flourishing capitalist economy. In addition to that, faithful Catholics want to live in a Catholic society. Now, are these two ideals compatible: a Christian society on the one hand and a capitalist society on the other?

To answer this question, we must first define capitalism. Capitalism is the economic system ordered to the unlimited production and acquisition of wealth (or capital) through the means of free labor and competition.

Everyone in America experiences this. Business owners pay workers to make a certain product which is then advertised and sold in competition with other businesses and their products.

What is most unique about this economic system is that the citizens of a capitalist society experience an unlimited ability to acquire capital because there is no end to the production of capital. There's always more stuff, and as long as you have money, you can always improve your own wealth, your own capital.

So what's the problem? As long as we receive the sacraments, love our neighbor, and try to become holy, what's wrong with buying more stuff?

To answer this, we must understand what society is, what the state is. In the Catholic understanding, the state is an institution ordained by God to help man achieve the common good (what is good for all). This means that everyone's basic needs are met so that everyone can fulfil his own duty in society — which ultimately means practicing justice and the other social virtues.

Now, based on the Church's understanding of society, is there something wrong with an economic system that works towards the unlimited production and acquisition of capital? The answer is yes, there is something gravely wrong.

For the capitalist, the right to private property (or capital) is absolute. You never have to justify owning property; there is absolutely no reason why you cannot own capital, and as much of it as you want, as long as you've paid for it.

But that is not the Catholic understanding. The Church has never understood the "right" to private property as absolute. The individual does not have a just claim on whatever capital he wishes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear about this:

The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. ... The right to private property ... does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial. ... Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good. (2402–06)

Thus the Church teaches there is a justification for private property: the common good. If your ownership of private property is harming the common good, then you no longer have a claim to that property (that's why the Church teaches that a starving man may take food without committing the sin of theft, because in that case private ownership does not serve the common good).

For the Church, then, capital is only a good if it serves one's material needs and helps one perform his role in society and in the Church. And since one's role in society is limited, it follows that there is a limited amount of capital one can justly claim to need.

Such a claim must surely be shocking to American Catholics. They would no doubt be shocked to learn that the Church, in ages past, designed an economic system directly opposed to capitalism and its competitive cutthroat economics. The Church's guild system made men of the same business work together in a fraternity to make a product sold at the cost of production, rather than making men compete against one another's businesses for a profit based on the consumer's demand for a product.

No doubt American Catholics would further be shocked to learn that the Church, in ages past, forbade workers from advertising products, from working beyond the prescribed hours, and above all, from working during solemn feast days — days of rest. For Catholic society is a society that works for the sake of satisfying daily needs so that one has time for intellectual leisure, the merry-making of the feast and the beauty of divine worship.

Yet there is no such rest in the capitalist society, which abhors the thought of a wasted business opportunity. Businesses certainly do not stop for holidays. On the contrary, they work harder to make a profit from them! For the capitalist can never be satisfied. He must continually slave away to make a profit, to acquire more capital, to make another profit, to acquire more capital ...

No, capitalism by its nature is opposed to Catholic society.

This article draws, in part, from "Catholicism, Capitalism and Protestantism," an essay by Amintore Fanfani, one of the most famous Italian politicians in the 20th century. This article does not present the whole of Catholic social teaching, but is merely an examination of the essential characteristic of capitalism and its relation to Catholic social teaching. Much more can and has been written on this topic.


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