Why So Many Catholics Get Economics Wrong — Despite What the Church Says

Catholic teaching strongly supports the right to private property and opposes socialism

By John Zmirak Published on May 16, 2016

One extremely stubborn myth that persists about the Catholic Church is that its teachings are fundamentally hostile to business, private property, the profit motive, and other critical elements in the free market economy. You can’t really blame clueless secular reporters, who wouldn’t know the Holy Trinity from a Hopi Indian, for getting such issues wrong. Plenty of our bishops, and a few of our popes have vented private opinions that suggest the very same thing — even though if you really do the reading, you’ll find out that the Church’s teachings actually favor all these wholesome things, so long as they’re not abused.

It’s the job of pastors to warn us against our all-too-human tendency to misuse the things God gave us, but sometimes they get carried away and seem to condemn those things in themselves, or the human drive to want them. That’s how you end up with preachers who seem to be condemning sex itself, or business itself, or political and religious freedom — since each of these good things is frequently abused. But only a Gnostic who thought that God had massively screwed up when He created the universe could really believe that such basic goods are evil. The most evil, destructive political systems in history were dreamed up by idealists who found the real world tainted and foul compared to the one that they saw in their daydreams. Those systems were put into practice by power-hungry ideologues, and their death toll is in the hundreds of millions (and counting).

Every single thing in the universe was created good by God, including the impulse to create, to improve, to innovate, and to accumulate a legacy to pass on to one’s children. The Old Testament at times seems almost obsessed with the question of legacy — think of Jacob’s battle with Esau, and Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son … which doesn’t mean quite what you might think it means, by the way! Private property is not some crass Republican construct designed to let Wall Street tycoons hoard all the good things of the earth. Instead, as Pope Leo XIII taught, it is a fundamental human right, which flows from our human dignity:

For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation…. [Because] man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason—it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession. (Rerum Novarum, 6)

Leo XIII’s defense of private property in the first major papal statement on economics is remarkably close to John Locke’s argument in his two Treatises of Civil Government — documents that were key to the American Founding Fathers. In fact, the scholars who helped Leo draft that landmark encyclical looked to Locke for their understanding of how to distinguish private property from the wild goods of nature.

Here is the key point on which Leo and Locke agree: Man turns the “commons” of the created world, which belong to no one, into private property by mixing them with his own “labor of brain and hands.” Hence a writer takes words that belong to everyone and no one, and freely uses his labor to create something new that rightly belongs to him. Every free act of human labor at any job, however manual or tedious, is an exercise of human dignity, and to unjustly take away the fruits of that labor is to make the worker a slave. That applies not just to authors but to ditch-diggers, farmers, entrepreneurs, even investors — who are risking their own accumulated labor in the form of money on a project that might create new jobs for thousands of other people. As Leo XIII warned:

The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair. (Rerum Novarum, 47)

We can certainly argue back and forth about how much is “fair,” but the fundamental principle is that property should be private because man is more than an animal, to led and controlled and fed from a common trough. We should regard attempts by politicians to raise taxes and buy the votes of one group of people by taking the property of some other people as a near occasion of sin.

God Made Man for Work

The urge each of us feels to work and be productive is part of the way God made us. Because of the Fall, we often experience work itself as a form of suffering, but Thomas Aquinas pointed out that even in the Garden of Eden, Adam was busy at work both physical (tending the plants) and intellectual (naming the beasts).

Why do we work? Well, except for the time when we putter away at hobbies that aren’t expected to yield any profit, we do it in order to gain something for ourselves or those whom we love — most typically our families. That gain can be emotional or spiritual, of course. (People still do write poems, paint watercolors, go on pilgrimages and collect vintage bottle caps.) But because we are physical creatures who live in the flesh, who need food, clean water, decent housing, transportation from place to place, medical care and a host of other frankly material things or services, most of the time the gain we seek from work is material.

That material gain comes in the form of money, which we use as a marker of value, and trade for the things that we need or want. Some Christians cluelessly misread St. Paul’s statement that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10) as implying that money itself is evil. But Paul was referring to an all-consuming lust for money that amounts to the deadly sin of Greed. A comparable love of sex would add up to Lust — but that doesn’t mean sex is evil in itself.

Money is the language of human cooperation. It saves us from having to barter for everything we need — to hunt down someone who needs exactly what we’re good at making, who also makes precisely the thing that we happen to need at the moment. (“I’ll trade you three handwritten copies of a book on the Catholic Church for that pepperoni pizza. Do you know anyone who makes Q-tips — and needs such a book?”) What is more, because currencies can be converted from one country to another, money is a universal language, with banks as the Star Trek-style pan-galactic translator.

Even Franciscans and Dominicans, whose orders were founded to practice a holy form of poverty, had to overcome their initial resistance and start carrying money, because their vows didn’t exempt them from the physical needs that come with being a mammal that lives on the earth. Likewise, when they preached about the special holiness of vowed virginity within a religious order, such friars had to recognize that sex and fruitful marriage are also holy. Without them, we wouldn’t even have any new nuns or monks! Likewise, without prosperous, hard-working people out for profit, no one would have any coins to drop in the friar’s begging bowl.

For a fascinating historical overview of the real, complex Christian tradition concerning  economics (especially banking and finance), I strongly recommend scholar Samuel Gregg’s new book, For God and Profit. This lucid, ecumenical book shows how the wisest, holiest men for hundreds of years taxed their brains and worked together to really understand economics as the art of human cooperation, and infuse it with a genuine, biblical ethic.

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