The debate touched off by Senator Marco Rubio’s recent speech at the Catholic University of America reveals major fault lines within current Catholic thinking in the United States.
What Rubio, who is Catholic, pointed out in his speech seemed straightforward enough: capitalism has led to a growing inequality. Many, especially the young, feel left out of a system that primarily benefits only a few and the already wealthy. Unemployment is at a record low, but the important question of whether work today respects human dignity is often left unanswered and unaddressed. Too often do people work in degrading conditions or are forced to take multiple low-paying jobs, leaving little time for leisure that is essential for the building up of families and communities. Student loans cripple young families and isolate them from many of the traditional paths to wealth.
Rubio’s seemingly earth-shattering idea was at its heart rather simple: reframe capitalism. Rubio’s hope was that by advancing “common good capitalism” he would help to orient us and our economy away from the singular pursuit of “GDP growth or the performance of the stock market” and to “the creation of dignified work.” Rubio’s speech included a few specific policy proposals, such as expanding the child tax credit and paid family leave.
Many conservatives took offense. The National Review Online captured much of the debate on the right, where the conversation is ongoing. The debate has spread to various outlets and incorporates a number of politicians from across the political spectrum who dare to question the virtues of capitalism given its readily apparent negative effects within our society. Surprisingly, however, some authors even took issue with “common good” as a concept, describing it as too vague and untenable as a practical matter. In a critical tone, Kevin Williamson, who is Catholic, wrote at NRO, “ [W]e know quite well, from long experience, how such vague and plastic notions of the ‘common good’ interact with the discrete good.”
Many of the critics of “common good capitalism” pointed to the remarkable improvement in the quality of life and the standard of living that Americans have gained because of capitalism. They argue, in part, that if poverty reduction is an important tenet of the “common good,” then one can hardly point out a better vehicle for advancing the common good than capitalism itself. Williamson went even further: “Capitalism is not a rival to the common good. Capitalism, meaning security in one’s own property and in the right to work and to trade, is the common good that governments exist to secure.”
Later, Williamson makes clear that he believes the Church’s teachings, espoused by popes from Leo XIII to Francis are essentially “fascist.” He writes,
Pope Francis and other moralistic critics of capitalism reliably overlook the fact that the great prosperity currently enjoyed by North Americans and Western Europeans — and, increasingly, by the rest of the world — is a product of the very model of capitalism they so intensely disdain. They spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about how to divvy up the goods without giving a second’s serious thought to how it is we came to have such a vast pile of goods. Like prosperity just happens by magic. Pope Francis can talk about feeding the poor — Monsanto actually does it while spending considerably less time inflicting ignorant homilies on the world. This prosperity came from somewhere. It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t the cleverness of Senator Rubio or Senator Warren. It wasn’t the big ideas of Pope Francis, to the modest extent that he has any economic ideas worth identifying as such.
Ironically, it was a moralizing St. John Paul II, whom Williamson appears to have a positive opinion of, who wrote, “[E]ven the decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice.” Later, Pope Benedict would write, “[J]ustice must be applied to every phase of economic activity… [E]very economic decision has a moral consequence.” Finally, Pope Francis wrote, “Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”
There’s simply no getting around it. Whatever goods that capitalism has brought, it nevertheless remains a human system that relies on the good moral decisions of virtuous human actors to be a fundamentally good system. All economic decisions are moral ones that require discernment. That the popes and the Church have critiqued capitalism is not a knock against capitalism per se (which nevertheless remains but one possible economic model, among others) but rather capitalism divorced from genuine concern for all people. Indeed, the popes over the years explicitly recognize that economic development is a legitimate good.
The economic development that Paul VI hoped to see was meant to produce real growth, of benefit to everyone and genuinely sustainable. It is true that growth has taken place, and it continues to be a positive factor that has lifted billions of people out of misery — recently it has given many countries the possibility of becoming effective players in international politics. Yet it must be acknowledged that this same economic growth has been and continues to be weighed down by malfunctions and dramatic problems, highlighted even further by the current crisis [note: Caritas in Veritate was written in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis]. This presents us with choices that cannot be postponed concerning nothing less than the destiny of man, who, moreover, cannot prescind from his nature.
I would like to emphasize again that the Church is very clearly not against economic growth, and in fact, teaches that growth and profit are important goals of our economic endeavors. In this way, capitalism has been an undeniable force for good in the world. As Benedict and other popes warn, however, profit is not the ultimate good of the economy. Rather, it is the development of all members of a society. In other words, capitalism must be directed toward something greater than itself. When the logic of profit holds exclusive sway, even over ethical or moral decisions, then it is highly likely that some will be shut out of economic life. The increasing use of technology to replace human workers is indicative of this, and especially when companies displace laborers without providing them any real path back to dignified work. Too often today in the United States are the sinful actions of economic participants–either individually or collectively–celebrated and defended and their negative consequences explained away so long as aggregate wealth expands or profits grow.
The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. … [B]y itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.
Despite the benefits we could point to justify its existence, any economic system that is predicated on the assumption that many must suffer so that the few can prosper will inevitably collapse through the sheer weight of its inequality. “Inequality is the root of social evil,” tweeted Pope Francis. Pope Leo XIII, writing against socialism in Rerum Novarum, understood that inequalities of some form or another will always exist in society. In fact, inequality of ownership is a natural consequence of the right to private property, which Leo XIII defended at length in his encyclical. At the same time, one might say there is also an inequality of responsibility, such that those who have wealth are obligated to distribute their wealth in a way that ultimately makes it more possible for all members of a society to have a legitimate and dignified role in their society’s economic and political life. Inequality, in this sense, is especially harmful to the common good, and the Church has taught that the government has an essential role to play in easing this inequality, through various means.
Unfettered capitalism is a grave evil, “the dung of the devil” as Francis once said. Without the government instituting certain restraints or incentives to control its worst impulses, capitalism would fail. Capitalism would fail because people are sinful and the actions of sinful people, as we have clearly seen over the years, lead to significant harms against the poor and the environment. Inevitably, as these harms accumulate with disproportionate impact on those who lack the economic means to defend themselves, there will be increasing distrust between classes and within communities, setting the stage for potentially violent (in a moral, physical, or political sense) revolution. New technologies and increasing interconnectedness, in addition to the goods they bring, are accelerating and magnifying these harms on a global scale. These advancements may require more virtue, or more regulation, but certainly not less.
Americans have been proficient in defending the rights of economic participants, but rarely do we hear any actual debate across the entire political spectrum about the actual duties of those participants. To be fair, these conversations are happening, but they are largely out-of-sight in corporate offices and boardrooms where a relatively small group of individuals have been desperately working with executives to get them to think about more than profit. They have had some success fighting against the capitalist technocratic paradigm, but arguably not nearly enough. Inequality, the kind that means that one set of people have dignity now and another set of people might have dignity later, is not the bedrock of a well-functioning society.
Catholic Christians are especially blessed with a rich body of social teachings that can help to guide us in our moral, political, and economic life. We are aware that conversations about the common good are very difficult because people have widely different conceptions about what that means in practice. But Catholics have the benefit of both faith and reason, which can give us a new vision and helps us to see with the eyes of the crucified Christ, who looks with mercy upon all his people.
The essential questions of politics include those like “What kind of society do we want to build?” or more particularly, “What is the common good in this instance?” As we think about our economic system and the goods and evils it has brought along with it, we must never prescind from the demands of the Gospel, borrowing a phrase from Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis and Pope Benedict asked in Lumen Fidei, “[C]an Christian faith provide a service to the common good with regard to the right way of understanding truth?” The answer is yes!
Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love. Through this blending of faith and love we come to see the kind of knowledge which faith entails, its power to convince and its ability to illumine our steps. Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment. Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.
Faith bestows more than just another form of technocratic knowledge. Rather, faith bestows knowledge of God and the historical reality of Christ Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Faith informs to the extent that it transforms each of us in God’s love, that it empowers men and women to make virtuous decisions out of love for each other. It is from the perspective won by faith that we can acknowledge that the deep pain and suffering of those excluded from full participation in the benefits of capitalism cannot go ignored or unabated (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). We each have the means and freedom to work to ensure that the dignity of all is respected and that all have a path to full participation in economic and political life.
It is not sufficient to only point to the benefits that capitalism has brought, but one must also consider the ongoing impacts of capitalism on real people, “on the ground,” that are suffering as a result of this economy. Is everyone benefiting from economic growth, or do some remain chronically on the outside looking in? The question for Catholics and American Catholics in particular is whether one will embrace faith above the technocratic paradigm of capitalism. It is one that we must all answer.