Capitalism is an economic and political system in which most of a nation’s trades and industries (its capital goods, including the land and natural resources) are controlled (i.e., owned and managed) by private owners for profit, rather than by the government. But that initial definition is still too broad, for capitalism more specifically divides labor from management and then gives management the right to exclude laborers from ownership and management. Due to our fallen human nature, the capitalist system, like every other social structure, tends to become adversarial and exploitative. But the more fundamental moral question that must always be asked of any economic system is whether it inherently violates the natural moral rights of whole groups of people such as the workers or the owners. The practice of exclusion in a social structure (for example, laity versus clergy) is not necessarily unjust and often serves the natural or supernatural common good, but workers and owners have universal moral rights which are based on the nature and transcendent dignity of the human person, and any violation of these natural human rights is unjust.
Against both capitalism and socialism, and in agreement with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, distributism claims that laborers themselves by natural law have a moral right to private shared ownership and cooperative open-book management of the capital goods that their labor is producing. The moral imperative, which Fulton Sheen, John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan often defended, is that anyone who is contributing to the production of capital goods in a particular society or corporation ought to be given a proportional participation in the private shared ownership and management of those capital goods. Nothing is thereby granted to the errors of socialism, but the private ownership of profitable corporations is extended to the laborers, thus potentially overcoming the division between labor and management and eventually making labor unions unnecessary. Distributism attempts to transform corporations into true communities with loyalty, fraternity, and concern for all stakeholders, but it also maintains the profit incentive. Under capitalism, by contrast, everyone becomes replaceable and expendable for the sake of efficiency. Under socialism, efficiency gradually dissolves, and the economy becomes unsustainable. Both outcomes are morally unacceptable.
If we classify distributism as a form of capitalism, then the term “capitalism” merely signifies non-socialism and includes every economic and political system in which capital goods are not owned and managed by the state. Most distributists would not call themselves capitalists, and they are usually sympathetic to most of the complaints of socialists about the injustices that always plague capitalist societies. Distributists such as Heinrich Pesch, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, J. R. R. Tolkien, Fulton Sheen, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis believe that there are structural problems inherent to the capitalist system, but they do not accept the socialist solution. Distributists typically believe that the structural problems inherent to the socialist system are far worse than those inherent to the capitalist system.
In the distributist system (which also has some practical challenges, but the question is whether it is inherently unjust) there is a structure of cooperative ownership and management internal to the corporations themselves. For example, laborers are empowered by the distributist system and open-book management to determine their own wages and benefits democratically based on a fair distribution of actual profits and thus are protected from exploitation and able to obtain a living wage for themselves insofar as the actual profits permit it. In the distributist system, laborers are also given the power to establish retrenchment policies and to protect themselves from downsizing practices that benefit only management or a privileged subset of the stakeholders in a particular corporation. Many corporations which have implemented distributist principles have a proven record of stability and success.
When the laborers themselves—not the state but also not an exclusive corporate management—are actively determining their own wages, benefits, and compensations collectively and democratically in organizations with internal checks and balances, is the system capitalist? It seems not. Is such a system socialist? It seems not. Socialism is based on Hegelian holism, which becomes communism when it goes politically left, and becomes fascism when it goes politically right. Capitalism and socialism as opposites are not contradictories but contraries, like the individual and the collective. The individual good is not merely the non-collective good, and the collective good is not merely the non-individual good. There is also the common good, which is the metaphysical basis for distributism and is neither individual nor collective. The unfortunate bipolar American tendency to conflate distributism with either capitalism or socialism generates a great deal of unnecessary confusion.
Radical distributist proposals and the principles of Catholic social teaching in general typically require us to think outside the modern political bipolar box, which is exactly what Pope Francis keeps asking us to do. But he is neither a capitalist nor a socialist. His provocative proposal for a universal basic income is analogous to Leo XIII’s provocative proposal to form labor unions. Such measures are merely temporary remedies to a much deeper social disorder, one which requires a much more radical form of therapy. Some of Pope Francis’s proposals might seem simplistic, misguided, and totally unworkable for particular nations and situations, but he understands the common good, and his primary existential and spiritual goal is to help people be open to the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, undergo a change of heart for the better in the midst of crises, and acquire a new and more effective way of thinking, acting, and organizing themselves.
Any such process of conversion presupposes the objective moral law, and Pope Francis wants to focus on the question of how best to help people undergo a personal conversion to the objective moral law and all its forms of justice. It is a practical pastoral question about how to help people and societies effectively become more virtuous. Why does Pope Francis choose to condemn Trump rather than Biden? Why does he publicly criticize the United States more than China? It has less to do with their obvious moral failings and more to do with the Pope’s judgment of effective means to greater respect for the common good and the dignity of the human person. Pope Francis seems to think that moralizing often defeats its own purpose and must therefore be used selectively. But he does not hesitate to moralize against having a pharisaic moralizing attitude. Is that not inconsistent? Does he not see the paradox? Maybe his critics are correct that he does not see it and is not only turned toward subjectivity but also stuck in subjectivity. Maybe he is simply guilty of the same moralizing attitude which he morally condemns. Or maybe he does see the paradox and just accepts it. Maybe he is trying to imitate the Lord and is thus employing the language of condemnation only with those for whom it might actually be effective. The Sacred Scriptures tell us that we are all going to be judged by God with the same standards with which we have judged others. Does that mean that God is a relativist? Obviously God is not a relativist, and the fact that the Pope chooses to condemn those whom he perceives as self-appointed condemners does not mean that the Pope is a relativist, either.
From the philosophy of science we know that socio-psychological error theories about the origin of a particular scientific theory become appropriate whenever that theory is known to be false on rational and objective grounds. By invoking extrinsic causal factors, sociologists have always been able to use error theories to explain knowledge that is falsely so called. Similarly, in order to find the arguments in Pope Francis’s book Let Us Dream compelling, it is first necessary to believe that the negative critical theory which is being advanced against him, and which he is attempting to address and explain, is actually false. The Pope is obviously not attempting to refute the ad hominem arguments of his critics. He is choosing to address the concerns of his opponents subjectively rather than objectively. He is insisting they are wrong and is attributing bad motivations to them, as they have been repeatedly doing to him. He is responding in kind and thus answering the ad hominem attacks on his doctrines with his own ad hominem attack on the negative criticisms of his opponents and with a socio-psychoanalytic explanation of their rigidity. But if on rational and objective grounds their resistance to a necessary change is in fact self-interested and self-protecting, then the Pope’s explanation of their resistance in terms of the overall nature of their attitude and conduct is appropriate and sound. He is telling them to repent, cease, and desist, and he is fully aware that his explanation of their attitude and conduct could effectively alienate some of them even further. We should note that he does use objective arguments against the objective positions that he believes are evil, such as neoliberal forms of capitalism. The pattern is that he uses subjective arguments against subjective attacks, and he uses objective arguments against objective errors. He is no more and no less anti-capitalist and anti-socialist than John Paul II and Benedict XVI were, and his basic call, like theirs, is to ground all economic and political systems in the objective moral order and the true common good.
The Pope’s opponents keep asking him to condemn injustice and worldliness in other people, not in themselves. But ironically he instead chooses to condemn the isolated mentality of condemnation that we can all recognize in ourselves, and he apparently sees it in himself and has struggled with it in the past as well. Should we rebel or repent? The fact that the condemnation is coming from the Pope should at least give us some pause for consideration. Maybe we are in fact afflicted with some kind of moral and existential blindness and indifference. Maybe we do not really have the feelings and empathy that we ought to have toward the poor and the marginalized. Maybe it is true that we are telling them to go in peace and to be warm and well-fed and then are doing nothing for their needs. Maybe we are in fact attributing evil motivations or vices to people who are simply making us uncomfortable. Maybe it is true that we are living in a comfort zone and ignoring the need for a mission of charity to the people of some Amazon region in our lives that God wants us to accept. Perhaps our Eucharistic celebrations are not consistently passing over into a concrete practice of love toward the poor and are therefore in fact intrinsically fragmented, as Benedict XVI also warned us (cf. Deus Caritas Est). Maybe what we like about Catholicism is that it makes us feel and look holy, when real holiness is seeking the lost, relieving the oppressed, and providing for the fatherless and the widows, as Isaiah tells us. Maybe, maybe not.
We can all hear what the Pope is saying and examine our own conscience. But he is also asking us to sit down together and to examine our whole economic and political system, to recognize the injustice that it is causing, and to restructure it. That’s a tall order, but it applies to socialism as well as capitalism. He says that he is not against capitalism as such, but only against neoliberal and laissez-faire capitalism. And he is promoting what is often called inclusive capitalism, which incorporates some distributist principles. Fulton Sheen, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI made the very same appeal, but Francis is willing to work much more actively with Protestants and secular humanists in order to make it happen. The program is simply one practical application of Catholic social teaching, to which we owe our assent and our support.
The philosophical concepts which Francis is using are all present in Caritas in Veritate, and yet he is accused of betraying Benedict XVI and promoting secular humanism and freemasonry, among other errors. Such Protestant misinterpretations are often sinful, and they must be rejected and opposed. Sometimes they are even willful and culpable. We must guard our hearts against calumny. Francis acknowledges that collaboration with secularists always carries certain dangers for the faithful, but he is asking us to affirm and support their good intentions and to participate in the evangelization of culture through a consistent Christian witness and concern for the common good. May the Lord, Meek and Humble of Heart, make our hearts like unto his own so that we can see all people as he sees them and extend his ministry to their true corporal and spiritual needs. And may his Mother, Immaculate and Pure of Heart, obtain for us the grace of spiritual poverty and solidarity.
Image: Public Domain, Three children operating rocker at a gold mine on Dominion Creek, Yukon Territory, ca. 1898. Created: 1 January 1898.
Tracy Jamison is a Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a secular Carmelite (OCDS) and a professor of Philosophy at Mount St Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology (MTSM). Tracy and his wife Joyce met in a Protestant seminary and have been happily married for over thirty years.