Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is Free Market Capitalism Contrary to Church Teaching?

Today, I found myself corresponding with a libertarian Catholic friend on the question of whether support for free market capitalism is contrary to Church teaching. I think that it is, my friend doesn't. This is actually the second such private debate I've been involved in. I had another Catholic friend with whom I corresponded with this for more than a year. It became quite tetchy and bad-tempered towards the end, although I'm pleased to say we are back in touch and we put the handbags away.

Anyway, searching my previous correspondence to find a selection of passages I'd pulled together from Papal encylicals that seem, to me, to make a near-irrefutable case I could use in my current debate, I thought I may as well post it on the blog. Let it be admitted that my libertarian friend did have an answer to this, and one that I can't dismiss lightly, and not without more research than I have time for right now.

Here goes, anyway:

"First of all I quote to you Chapter Three, Article Twenty-Five of Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church adopted at Vatican II:

“Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be respected by all as witnesses of divine and catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, should concur with their bishop’s judgment, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and adhere to it with a religious docility of spirit. This religious docility of the will and intellect must be extended, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the document is formulated” (from n.25 of the document “Lumen Gentium”)

Next I quote to you from Quadragesimo Anno, an enyclical written by Pope Pius XI in 1931, to commemorate forty years of Rerum Novarum-- the encyclical you consider yourself free to reject, but which subsequent Popes have re-affirmed:

Yet before proceeding to explain these matters, that principle which Leo XIII so clearly established must be laid down at the outset here, namely, that there resides in Us the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters. Certainly the Church was not given the commission to guide men to an only fleeting and perishable happiness but to that which is eternal. Indeed the Church holds that it is unlawful for her to mix without cause in these temporal concerns; however, she can in no wise renounce the duty God entrusted to her to interpose her authority, not of course in matters of technique for which she is neither suitably equipped nor endowed by office, but in all things that are connected with the moral law. For as to these, the deposit of truth that God committed to Us and the grave duty of disseminating and interpreting the whole moral law, and of urging it in season and out of season, bring under and subject to Our supreme jurisdiction not only social order but economic activities themselves.

Finally, I quote to you Rerum Novarum itself, the passage which rejects the justice of wages simply because they are accepted by the worker, through his supposedly free "choice". This enyclical was released in 1891.

43. We now approach a subject of great importance, and one in respect of which, if extremes are to be avoided, right notions are absolutely necessary. Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances.

44. To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent; it is not complete, for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether. To labor is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and chief of all for self preservation. "In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread." Hence, a man's labor necessarily bears two notes or characters. First of all, it is personal, inasmuch as the force which acts is bound up with the personality and is the exclusive property of him who acts, and, further, was given to him for his advantage. Secondly, man's labor is necessary; for without the result of labor a man cannot live, and self-preservation is a law of nature, which it is wrong to disobey. Now, were we to consider labor merely in so far as it is personal, doubtless it would be within the workman's right to accept any rate of wages whatsoever; for in the same way as he is free to work or not, so is he free to accept a small wage or even none at all. But our conclusion must be very different if, together with the personal element in a man's work, we consider the fact that work is also necessary for him to live: these two aspects of his work are separable in thought, but not in reality. The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.

45. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.


  1. Extract from Rerum Novarum could be said to condemn exploitation. Exploitation, arising from greed, may occur under other economic or political systems. It is not a unique feature of capitalism though the forms it appears in may be specific to the workings of capitalism. Is RN simply recommending vigilance against exploitation as this applies to the specific workings of capital and labour?

  2. Yes, but what's the point of vigilance if you can't do anything effective about it? My libertarian friend insists that the "public authority" mentioned in the extract need not (and should not) be the government, given the principle of subsidiarity. I just can't buy this. Who else but the government would have the authority to intervene in cases of economic exploitation?

  3. Oh, I see. That makes the nature of the disagreement clearer ie your friend opposes any state intervention in the contracts entered into by employers and workers that might limit the liberty of either party to propose or accept a certain level of wage?

  4. Precisely, and he's far from being alone in this. There are a lot of Catholics these days who believe government intervention in the economy (and indeed in society) should be minimized or even abolished. Gerard Casey, the professor of philosophy in UCD, who is a Catholic, advocates the complete abolition of the State.

  5. Important and interesting stuff. Paragraph 36 of Rerum Novarum is pertinent, I think

    [...] if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age - in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law. The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law's interference - the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.

  6. That seems pretty clear-cut, doesn't it?