Catholic Capitalist: A Walking Contradiction? Part II

Our Pope has the unique talent of stirring the pot on a weekly basis. We here at the Crossroads Pursuit think that’s really awesome. The Church, contrary to popular belief, encourages discourse. Because we are Catholic, we ought to be thinking, arguing, wrestling in pursuit of truth more than the common man. That’s why we’ve decided to host this discussion of Laudato Si and the Market Economy and keep that pot stirring and stirring until we’ve churned this milky topic to butter. We’ve asked two contributors to write on this topic. Paul Kolker, the Catholic improv comedian wrote our first article from a free market perspective. We encourage you to read that first. This article is by Josh Clemmons, the G.K Chesterton aficionado, who writes favoring greater market restraint. After these blogs have been posted, both authors will have a chance to read each other’s arguments and return with a one page response. Those responses will be posted as a single blog next Wednesday. Without further adieu, here’s Josh:


Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Laudato si has been a bombshell of sorts, and one dropped with plenty of warning. It would seem that everything the Pope does, even in the minor key, has a robust response from the wider world, at least in the praises and grumblings of the United States’ media machine. With the mini-drama of a leaked early version released by the Italian media, all appetites were wetted. And those for and against the Pope’s message are ravenous.

And not just for icecream

Upon reading the flurry of headlines I was struck by the variety of claims as to why this encyclical is so revolutionary. Some commentators are claiming it as an anti-modern polemic against materialism and the godlessness of our age while others are saying the Pope is a leftist progressive outside of his scope for endorsing an alleged scientific consensus on climate change and for siding against the free market. I thought: Surely this new contribution to the Catholic Church’s social doctrine must be a peculiar enrichment to the tradition, especially since it has so quickly proved to be a sign of contradiction. In other words: “Let’s see the monster!” However, as I read the lengthy circular letter, I was most surprised at how unsurprising it was. It seems to reiterate the well-established principles of the Church’s teaching on such subjects as society, economics, politics, and the environment. Is it the case that none of the Pope’s commentators have heard the teachings of the popes since 1891?

Yeah… no, totally… uhh

This social tradition of the Church, taken loosely, harkens back to the oldest Judeo-Christian teachings on charity and justice. Simply put, the aim is to answer the question of how to love one’s neighbors in the complex situation called, lovingly: society. In a more strict sense, the unified body of teachings formally known as the Church’s social doctrine traces back to Leo XIII’s encyclicalRerum novarum and weaves through the many changing social realities of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries in the form of papal encyclicals and conciliar documents. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lines out four major principles of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the person, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good. Stemming from these principles are the universal destination of goods, the preferential option for the poor, and participation. It is important to note that, “The principles of the Church’s social doctrine must be appreciated in their unity, inter-relatedness and articulation” (Compendium, 162). In a systematic fashion, the Church aims to use these fundamental principles as a unified doctrine, taking into account the contingencies of societies, societies that are as much in flux as a floppy fish. The subject matter under scrutiny is ever changing. This is very different than the development of other aspects of the Church’s theology. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, developed as a deeper understanding of the revealed and unchanging Revelation. God does not change. Our understanding of him simply progresses over time. On the other hand, when it comes to social doctrine, though principles can be as unchanging as human nature, their application has to move with the same dynamism of societal shift. Societies change. This makes Catholic social thought an especially interesting theological field, but also fragile in the sense that misunderstanding and controversy can arise more easily along with distortions through political and economic ideologies and propaganda. Furthermore, the principles are ordered to action. They are not meant to be speculated on as much as acted on, which requires that if one honestly approaches them, conversion might be a nasty necessity. Perhaps this is why Laudato Si has met with misunderstanding, controversy, and a good deal of distortion in the United States. One distortion that is especially irksome to me is that Pope Francis is against the free market.

I cannot help but think of G.K. Chesterton’s words: “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.”

So sayith the Teddy Roosevelt of Catholicism! 

And that is exactly what I see Pope Francis’ encyclical to be. It is a minimum of the Church, watered down enough to be a message even to unbelievers, but an ultimatum to all worldliness. It is a message that reiterates a rich tradition of Catholic social teaching, but with a special emphasis that highlights the intimate connection between caring for the environment and caring for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Francis calls for an “integral ecology”, placing environmental ecology in a social and human context since “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental”(Laudato Si, 139).

Neither of these realities, the poor person or the poor environment, does the average American really want to look at. My dad always liked to say that d’Nile was more than a river in Egypt.

Yes, Dino, and also in POLLUTION. 

There is a kind of denial since the culture is locked in an individualistic mindset in a polarized climate. It would seem that we need a social “climate change” in order to address climate change! Actually, the Pope calls for an “ecological conversion” in which we see the world as more than an instrument for arbitrary use, but as God’s creation, one inscribed with its own grammar of meaning, a common right and a responsibility for the entire human race. The voice of the Church calls us to be dignified stewards, not merely technological wizards and this call, when we look at all that it would entail, smacks of the cross, so repulsive a call for the comfy.

How do we escape this moral voice ringing out a cry from Vatican City? We can deny that the poverty of the poor is a real problem, argue that the means of fixing it is our own self-interested pursuits, or deny that it is our responsibility. Meanwhile, we can deny that there is any real environmental problem, that we had anything to do with it, or that we can do anything about it. In other words, we squirm. In all this scrambling, what sacred providence do we look to? In what direction shall we genuflect before we take our seats and cross our arms for a snooze? The market and the bottom line. Yes! The providence of man’s manifold demand will provide! Is this not what we see many in the U.S. doing?

This is a mental habit that Pope Francis decries, saying that “…we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies and individuals” (Laudato si, 190). Actually, he is not the first Pope to do so. Many have similarly noted the danger of an unhealthy individualism and a superstitious devotion to a deified market.  Let it suffice to quote Quadragesimo anno, written by Pius XI, the first pope to ever speak of social doctrine as a unified body of teaching. He states:

“the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated” (Quadragesimo anno, 88).

For those souls who find this discomforting, it is tempting to say that the Church is against the free market. This is a distortion of the Church’s teaching, and it is equally a perverse misinterpretation ofLaudato si, a document in faithful continuity with its tradition. Though “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” (John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 34), it is also the case that “Faced with the concrete ‘risk of an ‘idolatry’ of the market’, the Church’s social doctrine underlines its limits” (Compendium, 349). The Church’s concept of freedom is one that takes into account other values, like truth and justice. Freedom is subordinated to truth and justice, which includes the freedom of the market. The free market is not absolutely free, nor should it be. Let’s not jump the gun when the Pope asks us to be our brother’s keeper and to care for God’s creation as responsible stewards! It is a timely call out to the world from a Church that cares.

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