Pope Francis has been under attack from many directions. Perhaps some day his enemies–most of which are self-described traditionalist (as opposed to traditional) Catholics–will find some dirt to stick on the poor man, but so far they appear to be missing their target by more than a mile. The most ridiculous charge–made among others by that great moral theologian of the airwaves Mr. Limbaugh–is that his condemnation of unfettered capitalism is Marxist.
Before getting to the point of this, I should make this disclaimer: I have no idea of how much economics the Holy Father has studied. In fact, I doubt that he could give a convincing definition of “capitalism.” But., for that matter, the great capitalist of the airwaves does not seem to be able to distinguish free enterprise from capitalism. I do not propose to write a treatise on the subject. Let us agree that like all “isms,” capitalism is not an economic system per se but an ideology, which is to say a theory used to justify the possession of power and wealth by a certain class. (His analysis of ideology is one of Marx’s few insights!)
In this specific case, capitalism is the defense of a system by which some people own and control various forms of property, especially the means of production, and are justified in using or abusing them for their own purposes with little or no regard for their fellow human beings. It is an enormously productive–and destructive–system, and one’s response to it depends a great deal on how much wealth one happens to possess. Speaking candidly, I do not much like capitalism as a theory or the people it justifies. On the other hand, I prefer it infinitely to its Marxist alternatives.
The Christian faith took shape, it goes without saying, in a world in which the theory of capitalism was unknown largely because the phenomenon it justifies was only in its infancy. The Roman Empire had a more direct, less hypocritical system of exploitation: slavery.
Some of the American bishops have made matters worse–as usual–by implicitly accepting the pseudo-conservative critique and responding to it by conflating Christian social morality with socialism. They are as ignorant as the talk radio economists and far more dangerous. In fact, there is no common ground between socialism and Christianity, and to make just a little bit of this clear, I shall stick in some paragraphs from the first chapter of my next book. The chapter is entitled “Exiled Children of Eve,” and it takes its text from the Beatitudes.
Many Christians (and still more post-Christians) have dreamed of building a new Jerusalem, where the unpromising specimens of humanity they had known all their lives would live in perfect peace and uninterrupted joy. This heavenly kingdom was not located in another dimension or in an afterlife when the saints would receive new bodies, but in the here and now, where ordinary men and women, if they could but comprehend and follow the new revelation, would achieve a justice that had only been hinted at in the societies of the past.
When such experiments have been tried, as in Calvin’s Geneva, Jacobin France, Nazi Germany, or Communist Russia, the reality is more nightmare than paradise. You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few—or, rather, more than a few million—eggs, and you can realize the imagined rights of man without wiping out or at least truncating some of the most basic foundations of human social life, namely, marriage and the family, the institutions of local community and traditional religion, the desire for power and the need for property, the human habits of barter and exchange on which all economies depend.
Jesus’ teachings are not easily reconciled with the doctrines of modern radicals and revolutionaries. Indeed, and He more than once affirmed the binding authority of the old law, particularly the Decalogue:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Any impression that this Messiah had come to destroy all law and custom is mistaken. “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
The utopian dream is not specifically Christian. Plato and Plotinus had their social fantasies, as did Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, but pagans may be more easily excused for succumbing to their own inventions. Christians are supposed to follow the teachings of their Master, who firmly informed the Roman authorities he was accused of challenging, “My kingdom is not of this world.” That should have been the final world on both Christian socialism and Christian democracy. There is an ancient story that the emperor Tiberius was so impressed by the example of a Jewish prophet who did not contest imperial authority that he asked the senate to include the Christ in the Roman pantheon. Few historians (apart from Marta Sordi) put any stock in the tale, though it is not inconsistent with Tiberius’ ironic sense of humor and just improbable enough to be true.
The first Christian to convert Christ’s moral and spiritual message into a program for political revolution may have been Judas, who complained when Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus with oil, a task she and other Christian women would soon have to perform on His body. When Judas asked why the oil was not sold and the price given to the poor, Jesus’ reply was an incisive rejection of the Social Gospel: “The poor you have with you always, but me you do not have always.” The Christian, both as individual and as member of a corporate body (such as a family or church), will practice charity out of his love of God and of his fellows made in God’s image, but he will not set up a system to redistribute other people’s wealth.