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Papal doubts about unbridled capitalism


Papal social teaching is generally presented as having begun with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891). That, however, is not quite accurate. Leo's predecessor, Pius IX, set out his views of the social order in the encyclicals Qui Pluribus (1846) and Nostis et Nobiscum (1849), and in various other formal statements.

Pius' teaching, like all teaching, reflected the circumstances in which he found himself. He was opposed to the unification of Italy, which would end the temporal power of the pope. In Qui Pluribus he denounced the prevailing dangers to religion. These included the Carbonari (who sought to unite Italy) and other secret societies; "the crafty Bible Societies, which renew the old skills of the heretics and ceaselessly force on people of all kinds, even the uneducated, gifts of the Bible"; and "the unspeakable doctrine of communism."

In 1849 he expressed himself even more vigorously in Nostis et Nobiscum, after riots in Rome had forced him to flee to Gaeta. The final goal of communism or socialism "is to excite by continuous disturbance workers and others, especially those of the lower class, whom they have deceived by their lies and deluded by the promise of a happier condition. ... Let our poor recall the teaching of Christ himself that they should not be sad in their condition, since their very poverty makes lighter their journey to salvation, provided that they bear their need with patience and are poor not alone in their possessions, but in spirit too."

Leo XIII, who succeeded Pius in 1878, shared his predecessor's evaluation of the contemporary world, as is clear from his second encyclical, Quod Apostolici Muneris (1878): "The revered majesty and power of kings have won such fierce hatred from these seditious people that disloyal traitors ... refuse obedience to the higher powers to whom, according to the admonition of the apostle, every soul ought to be subject ... and they proclaim the absolute equality of all men in rights and duties." Where Leo differed from Pius was in his gradual realization that liberal capitalism was replacing absolute monarchy as the dominant political system of government, and his belief that the church should learn to live with it.

Leo's dominant concern was that the church was losing the working class of Europe to socialism and communism. Rerum Novarum was his effort -- ultimately unsuccessful -- to reverse the trend. The two issues he faced explicitly are the Marxist rejection of private property (which he incorrectly presented as total; Marx sought only to abolish bourgeois property based "on the exploitation of the many by the few") and its theory of class struggle. The former, he argued, would upset society, enslave the citizens, eliminate economic stimuli, contradict the natural right of the individual, and end by organizing equality into destitution. The latter wrongly represents classes as natural enemies, whereas "capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital." He does not explicitly attack the Marxist claim that the wage system is inherently unjust or the correlative theory of surplus value. The underlying premise of the encyclical, however, is that the wage system is inherently legitimate, as long as it keeps profit within "just limits"; in other words, the capitalist system needs only to be reformed, not radically transformed. This is essentially an anti-Marxist position, an option for capitalism.

Writing in 1931 when the entire world -- not just the United States -- was sunk in the Great Depression, Pius XI was less sure. The virtuous Christian employers, on whom Rerum Novarum had relied to improve the lot of the worker, had failed to materialize. Socialism, in consequence, had won the allegiance of a steadily growing number of the world's dispossessed.

Pius's response in Quadragesimo Anno was to accept several elements in the Marxist critique of capitalism. He agreed with Lenin that "free enterprise" must evolve into monopoly capitalism, "an international imperialism whose country is where profit is," a system not able to curb or control itself or to direct economic life, and in consequence ultimately self-destructive. The free market, Pius charged, "of its own nature" concentrates power in anti-social types, in those "who fight most violently and give least heed to their conscience."

An unhappy carry-over from the mindset of Pius IX was reasserted in Quadragesimo Anno, the notion of a fixed social order determined by God and not to be challenged by humans. The workers, Pius XI wrote, "will accept without rancor the place which divine providence has assigned to them." It was a position that had been spelled out in more detail by his predecessor, Pius X, in Fin dalla prima: "Human society as established by God is made up of unequal elements. ... Accordingly, it is in conformity with the order of human society as established by God that there be rulers and ruled, employers and employees, learned and ignorant, nobles and plebeians."

John XXIII rejected the notion of arbitrary limits on human initiative. He accepted the actual and objective impulse of contemporary society, its intense drive to socialization, collectivization and planetarization. He saw both capitalism and socialism as evolving toward a kind of collectivization that produces alienation. He believed we had acquired a level of control of the material world that should not be left to a few to manipulate for private gain; that such things as nuclear energy, genetic engineering, automation, cybernetics, conquest of space and instant communications were the inheritance of all, so that all should share in their control and benefits.

The development of liberation theology in the late 1960s provided new insights. It rejected the European approach to theology by deductive reasoning from abstract first principles in favor of a praxis, a frame of action derived from observation and analysis of facts and of one's own reality, a process out of which has grown the preferential option for the poor.

Unfortunately, the theological conservatism and aversion to socialism of Pope John Paul II have led him to conclude that after the collapse of the Soviet Union there is no further need for liberation theology. They have also caused him to downplay the role of justice in the social order, stressing instead a solidarity that is defined as nothing more than charity, and leaving the church in the position of judging the world from above and outside history. That is a role Vatican Council II abdicated in Gaudium et Spes, when it opted instead for the more modest function of servant and supporter of humanity in its God-inspired drive to build a world worthy of the divine plan. Only when it in fact commits itself to the role envisaged by the council will the church have something meaningful to say to capitalism.

Many were shocked by the position adopted by the U.S. delegation to the recent World Food Congress in Rome, when it rejected the proposal to declare food a human right. But if we substitute charity for justice as the basis of our social teaching, how can we insist that both individuals and states have an obligation to provide food to strangers or foreigners who are starving to death?

There was a time when Catholic social teaching was clear on that issue. "All possessions are by nature unrighteous," wrote Clement of Alexandria around the year 200, "when one possesses them for personal advantage and does not bring them into the common stock for those in need." Basil the Great two centuries later agreed: "That bread which you keep belong to the hungry; that coat in your closet, to the naked."

St. John Chrysostom was even more emphatic: "I have often laughed while reading documents that say: 'That one has the ownership of fields and house, but another has its use.' For all of us have the use, but no one has the ownership." And again: "How did you become rich? From whom did you receive it, and from whom he who transmitted it to you. From his father and grandfather. But can you, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice."

It is here, in the first centuries of Christianity, that we must look for the true foundations of Catholic social teaching.

Gary MacEoin is the author of many books and a frequent contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 1997