"No other forces are to be recognized except those which reside in matter, and all the rectitude and excellence of morality ought to be placed in the accumulation and increase of riches by every possible means, and the gratification of pleasure."-Error #58, Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, 1864.
A spectre is haunting traditional Catholicism: the cult of Enlightenment capitalism and its ideology of the unrestrained free market. I find the influence of this sect in American Catholic circles to be historically frustrating, intellectually offensive, and spiritually devastating. It is historically frustrating in its blithe indifference to the dramatic nineteenth century battle during which the basic Catholic complaints against modern capitalism were first cogently expressed and accepted by the Church. It is intellectually offensive insofar as it neglects the serious Catholic anti-capitalist critique, often reducing it to a purely romantic flirtation with pre-industrial life. It is spiritually devastating, because worship of the unrestrained market drives a stake into the very heart of the Catholic vision, erecting an impenetrable intellectual barrier to the transformation of individual and society in Christ, and turning sincere Catholic believers into schizophrenic practitioners of a blatant practical Modernism.
Allow me to begin by insisting that this short article could easily have been called "Been There, Done That" or "Nothing New Under the Sun". This is due to the fact that the entire contemporary debate concerning the acceptability and catholicity of the unrestrained market is in no way a groundbreaking one. It was already conducted in Catholic circles a century and a half ago, and with clearly anti-capitalist results. Anyone looking for the precise details of this old dispute and the names of the people involved in it can consult my book, Removing the Blindfold (The Remnant Press, 1999). My goal, here, is a much more modest one; that of merely opening Catholic eyes to the general history of this nineteenth-century dialogue and the issues which were truly central to it. The sad fact that this needs to be done at all indicates just how complete the victory of the anti-traditionalist position in Roman Catholic circles has been.
Although discussions of the relationship of capitalism and Catholicism began in the first part of the 1800’s, it really took the Revolutions of 1848, and especially the Parisian social and economic uprising called the June Days, to intensify them. Crucial to this intensified discussion was the attempt by certain segments of the liberal capitalist bourgeoisie to forge an alliance with long-time Catholic opponents who seemed to be as horrified as they were by the appearance in June of 1848 of a socialist threat to property. Creation of a unified anti-socialist Party of Order, such liberals argued, should be the overriding goal of all morally-upright and far-sighted men.
One troublesome condition for the sealing of this alliance was demanded, however: obliteration of much of the intellectual and historical record of the previous one hundred years. While Catholics would be permitted by their new friends to pursue criticisms of those Enlightenment and French revolutionary principles which produced socialism, they would be obliged to abandon objections to any of the very same precepts which had fashioned liberal capitalism. Obvious "common sense" was said to dictate a joint liberal-Catholic polemic versus the socialist evil. Continued Catholic anti-capitalist attacks would, on the other hand, represent an inexplicable, pointless, peevish waste of intellectual energy, and merely aid the destructive advance of the palpable Red Menace.
Now some of our Catholic ancestors were only first awakened to the problems of modernity by the disturbances of the "June Days". Shocked by the open critiques of property accompanying this uprising, they did not investigate its deeper causes and really quite variegated and often even traditionalist complaints. Instead, many lunged for the liberal capitalist bait with enthusiasm and joined, fervently, in the common crusade against socialism. They obligingly condemned as intransigent obscurantists and shameless rabble rousers those of their fellow-believers who refused to jettison the broader philosophical and historical battle with Enlightenment liberalism.
But such "intransigents" were unmoved by the "common sense" onslaught of the Party of Order. They insisted that any coherent response to contemporary evils had to emphasize the truth that liberal capitalism and socialism were actually blood brothers; that both had exactly the same atomistic, naturalist Enlightenment roots; that the arguments of the liberal capitalists had actually given intellectual birth to the doctrines of the socialists; that capitalist excesses had provided psychological stimulus to the desperate spirit of the June Days.
Catholic social doctrine, beginning with the negative attacks of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) and the positive guidance of Leo XIII’s (1878-1903) encyclicals, emerged out of this intense, post-1848 debate. It is true, as critics of this social doctrine note, that its teaching is in many respects a sketchy and tolerant one. It does indeed allow for a kaleidoscope of practical responses to modern economic conditions, ranging from calls to scrap the liberal capitalist system entirely to acceptance of the basic framework which this system has created and vigorously maintained as a prudential necessity. Still, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Church deemed the "intransigents" to be correct on one absolutely crucial matter: the need to reject the principle of the unrestrained free market as a morally reprehensible standard. This rejection rings loud and clear through every papal statement on social issues. To paraphrase a certain American Catholic weekly, the Church decided that no one could be a sincere Catholic and a supporter of the unrestrained free market simultaneously.
Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even the United Kingdom were all centers for this nineteenth century debate. As intimated above, the bulk of those anti-capitalist thinkers whose ideas really had an influence on the Syllabus and the Leonine encyclicals were not at all obsessed with a return to an idyllic life on a feudal manor filled with altruistic barons and voluntarily servile peasants. All realized that capitalist investment in modern industry was yielding a greater productivity than man had ever known before. A number were fully aware of benefits emerging from industrialization, and convinced that having entered down its pathway there was no easy, charitable way out of it either. Nevertheless, personal experiences with the unrestrained free market and its justification (often obtained in a period of exile in 1848 in Britain or famished Ireland) convinced them that modern capitalism was an ideologically revolutionary force which also had the capacity for causing an enormous amount of unneeded suffering for mankind.
Let us take the arguments of La Civiltà Cattolica, the "intransigent" Jesuit journal published in Rome after 1850, as an example of the critique I am relating. Its editors, men like Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, Carlo Curci, and Matteo Liberatore, examined the Enlightenment capitalist system from many different standpoints and in a massive number of articles stretching over many decades. One line of their criticism, jointly philosophical, theological, historical, sociological, and psychological in character, ran as follows.
Western civilization grew up emphasizing the existence of an objective order of nature, the importance of individual freedom within that order, and the need for individuals to be enlightened as to the character of nature and freedom through the guidance of authoritative societies like the family and the State. Western thinkers argued that individuals, left to their own devices, simply could not properly see all that needs to be seen to understand either the objective order of things or the essence of human liberty. Individual knowledge and personal freedom could only be perfected though life in community. Social beings alone could become wise and free. Unaided, anti-social individuals could possess but a fragmented, flawed science of nature and knowledge of their place within it. They would thus be condemned to use their liberty to destroy themselves as well as the people around them.
Such ideas, already shaped by the ancient Greeks, really only gained historical clout due to the Incarnation and Redemption. Christ provided supernatural teaching and medicine to heal the weaknesses and flaws of a natural world which had chosen to mar itself through sin. His message confirmed an order and purpose to things that even the best of non-believers were tempted intellectually to question and practically to contradict. His labors for the salvation of human persons underlined the central value of the individual to the plan of God. His demand for individual submission to Him and to His Mystical Body placed a supernatural stamp upon the importance of authoritative communal guidance of men. Christ taught that it was only through full membership and participation in supernatural society, only, in effect, by choosing to see Creation through God’s eyes, that individuals and societies could fully understand nature and use it fittingly. The Incarnation gave men the ability to use nature to serve the God who had created it to the utmost degree, raising their consciousness of the intrinsic value and responsibility of all of nature’s specific tools, from its sciences to its temporal authorities, as it did so. Without the supernatural grace of God, imparted through a socially powerful Church, individuals could not suitably understand and exploit what they seemed to be capable of knowing and putting to use even on purely natural grounds alone.
Any economist formed by these influences would know that he could not base his knowledge of the functioning of the market upon his unaided, atomistic reason and desires alone. He would realize that his economic reasoning and decisions must be informed by the deeper wisdom gained by actively living under the authoritative guidance of family, fraternal and professional organizations, and the State; by actively living under the supernatural moral authority of the Church; by ultimately seeing economic needs through the eyes provided by all of nature’s tools and those of nature’s Creator and Redeemer as well.
Such an economist would enter into his studies with his eyes wide open. He would be aware that his discipline is not merely the science of gaining wealth, but of gaining wealth in union with all other natural and supernatural requirements. He would understand that he could not promote behavior which might, at least in the short run, make men wealthier, if it would be better for them and for their neighbors, in the long run, to act differently. Again, he would recognize that what this "better" meant would have to be defined by taking stock of a variety of factors that the collective natural and supernatural wisdom of the ages deemed to be important: a balance of agriculture and industry; neighborhood stability and access to the necessities of life; stewardship of the environment; defense of deeply-rooted customs and the beautiful achievements of high cultures; the demands of justice and charity; the need to transform all things in Christ so as to aid man’s quest for eternal salvation. The truly wise economist would teach that men were not free to gain wealth obtained at the expense of leveling the Roman Forum to create more parking spaces for easier shopping at the Wal-Marts of the Eternal City; of turning patriotic celebrations and sacred festivals into nothing other than elaborate occasions for purchase and consumption; of marketing whatever might satisfy the wishes of revelers participating in Gay Pride Week. Simply put, the truly wise economist would see that man does not live by bread alone, nor does it profit him if he gains the whole world and loses his soul in the process. He would encourage wise social authorities to use all their strength to oppose the victory of an economic materialism, even if this were democratically supported by 99% of the population.
Enlightenment thought, La Civiltà Cattolica argued, is flawed because it violates all the above western philosophical and Catholic theological precepts, thereby blinding its proponents to the truth. Its atomistic freedom reduces men to precisely that unaided, anti-social condition which the previous development of our civilization had condemned as parochial and self-destructive. Its naturalism compounds the problem by prohibiting consideration of God’s plan for His Creation and man’s eternal destiny in secular matters as unpardonably invasive.
Enlightenment man thus lives and acts in a world whose every basic daily motions, both mundane and serious, are cut off from their final purpose. The "sciences" produced by Enlightenment freedom and naturalism are, therefore, studies that uncover nothing other than the laws of an incomplete nature, and a fallen one to boot. These sciences are then studied for incomplete, fallen reasons, chiefly to gain power over the world as it is so as to provide some immediate satisfaction perceived as being good by flawed individuals. Such "sciences" obstinately refuse to admit the possibility of learning how to change and heal nature through reason, revelation, and grace; they dedicate their practitioners to the encouragement of limitation and weakness. Ideological and arrogant in their self-sufficient rationalism, they close themselves off to all criticism of their errors, responding to much rational evidence in irrational ways. Hence, the above mentioned appeal to the dictates of an unexamined "common sense". Hence, their frequent calls for a consciousness raising which would transform the unenlightened into creatures able to distinguish natural data which is acceptable from that which is strictly verboten. Hence, also, the infallible trump card utilized by every sophist relying on psychological and rhetorical rather than rational tools to influence the mob: consideration of the respective success rates of the enlightened and the obscurantists in exploiting a world governed by unrestrained Original Sin.
All Enlightenment atomists and naturalists teach flawed, iron-clad, materially satisfying "scientific laws of nature" to which they demand unquestioning submission from the Church and Christian believers. Nevertheless, they differ as to what these laws are, merrily lambasting their fellow illuminati with as much rhetorical disdain as they do the retrograde Catholic community. Prince Otto von Bismarck of Prussia and Count Camillo Cavour of Sardinia saw that the rules of Machtpolitik yielded their states an immediately greater power and wealth than any nation following the guidelines of a St. Louis IX or a Pius IX might expect. Therefore, they insisted that Church doctrine bend to its "natural laws" and political science. Piety could be no excuse for neglecting the demands of a Machtpolitik whose victories might even be presented to believers as reflecting the higher will of God. Sexual libertines had proof positive that the unrestrained pursuit of physical satisfaction could result in much more immediate carnal rewards. Therefore, Church doctrine had to bend to accept the "science" of seduction, and perhaps encourage experts to raise the sexual consciousness of religious critics to make them, too, act more naturally. Liberal bourgeois capitalists witnessed the way in which the totally free market produced vast wealth for clever entrepreneurs. Voilà, a revelation of the infallible framework for a naturalist economic science before which western philosophy and Catholic theology must kneel and worship. Regardless of such differences in emphasis, the "free" individual operating under the spell of all of these "sciences" is everywhere the same: a self-limiting, parochial being; a willful, passionate child who specializes in learning how to get more toys for himself than the other kids around him, regardless or whether he needs or benefits from them. He wants what he wants when he wants it, and no mommy or daddy is going to force him to give up his rattle and learn the meaning of true virtue.
By now, it should be clear that the kinds of Catholic criticisms represented by journals like La Civiltà Cattolica have nothing whatsoever to do with adulating the early morning collection of eggs and the milking of cows. They are partly the product of a philosophical, historical, and sociological study. More importantly still, they are the result of a Catholic Incarnational vision that battles coherently versus all Declarations of Independence from God’s creative and redemptive plan, including those concerning economic methodology and morality.
When applied to the current traditionalist flirtation with capitalism, this nineteenth century critique must suggest a whole battery of soul-wrenching concerns: the fact that Catholics are separating daily individual choices regarding economic matters from their impact upon our eternal destiny; that Catholics are reducing market issues to the realm of the morally indifferent, and judging right and wrong on the basis of success in manipulating fallen nature alone; that Catholics are reading history on the basis of a Liberation Theology of the Market that sees the transformation of all things in capitalism as being infinitely more important, in practice, than transformation in Christ. This is frightening, because it is Modernism pure and simple, and in a realm where everyone has his daily temptations, and most of us, unfortunately, our price. Allow such a vision to triumph in Catholic circles and worries about the morality of Machtpolitik and sexual libertinism must logically disappear as well. Christian behavior will eventually mean nothing. Eternal salvation will be viewed as a reward for a lifetime of orthodox recitation of a purely intellectual and inconsequential Creed after our days in a morally indifferent playground have ended.
Many of the early supporters of erroneous ideas do not desire the consequences that flow from them. Martin Luther did not want the principles of Protestantism to aid radical enthusiasts. America’s Founders did not plan for the influence of Karl Rove. Cavour and Bismarck might have laughed away the prospect of a Hitler, and sexual libertines the universal spread of gross pornography. Liberal bourgeois capitalists of the mid-nineteenth century would, perhaps, have run headlong from massive shopping malls destructive to more restrictive forms of village and city economic life. And, certainly, most recent traditionalist defenders of the unrestrained market whom I know do not wish to destroy what remains of Christian morality and Christendom.
The fact that so many heretics and ideologues do not wish bad things to happen is a proof of the continued hold of traditional beliefs and conservative presuppositions regarding personal behavior upon them. But it is also a demonstration of the failure of their logic. Regardless of the will or the choice of the Founders of any erroneous school of thought, the ideas that they espouse are what they are and spread their inevitable subversive poison. Some men, like the Anabaptists and Unitarians of Luther and Calvin’s days, accept that logic straightaway. Nevertheless, the bulk of humanity requires time to do so; time, the slow dissolution of the beliefs and behavior which block radicalism, and the construction of a society which fully shapes people not on the basis of its Founders’ irrational conservative scruples, but their corrosive rational principles.
Enlightenment freedom and naturalism lead, logically, to the creation of radical, passionate men who care nothing for long-standing traditions and objective morality. The logic of Enlightenment capitalism, as men like Michael Novak exult, is to create a new kind of man who thinks and acts differently then citizens of traditional western Christendom. These new men will ensure that the pattern of capitalist industrial development in twenty-first century Africa and Latin America is different than that guided by more traditionally-minded individuals still shaped by the Christian remnants of eighteenth-century Britain. These new men will not define or practice a "charity" that can correct social imbalances in the same way as older Catholic believers could. These new men will adore the anti-social, anti-historical, materialist way of life, and, if they are Catholic in name, make of the Traditional Mass and the Traditional Faith an after-hours parlor sport for those engaged in what really counts in a democratic, capitalist universe: making big time bucks and spending them on often useless or destructive toys.
One of the sad realities of life today is that this new capitalist man seems already to dominate the global scene through a version of the Enlightenment revolutionary vision which cannot be altered without untold dislocation and horror. I believe that that dislocation will nevertheless come, and not from the outside, but from the system’s own implosion. It is understandable that many may find this notion difficult to accept, both because the system, by its very nature, discourages intellectual investigation of its problems (See "Why Catholics Cannot Defend Themselves", www.romanforum.org), and because a mere two hundred years of Enlightenment capitalist history may not yet have been enough time for its full disruptive potential to display itself. Both Reason and Faith indicate that its judgment day must come. In the meantime, traditonalist Catholics can at least be put on warning against praising a force that barters away their true freedom, their true knowledge, the true, redeemed order of nature, and the moral concerns of their true Faith for a killing on the market. Christ came to save us from the Fall; not to preach encouragement of Original Sin as the only sound basis for economic security and personal liberation.