How free market capitalism wears away at ‘economic chastity’
November 30, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Proponents of a “morally neutral” or even “morally good” capitalist free market economy seem blind to the perils of handing over the keys to fallen human nature—not to mention blind to economic reality, since, as Pius XI recognized in his great social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, there has never been, nor could there ever be, a perfectly free market; there will only be an arena in which the strong and the weak and their allies or enemies struggle for power.
This is why a society cannot avoid the need for a strong government that implements a system of just laws to regulate economic life. No fence-sitting is possible; either a system of just laws will exist to regular the economy, or a system of unjust laws, or a confused chaos of both kinds—but a government-free realm of economic transactions is practically impossible and undesirable even if it were possible.
Of course, we do not have a sound framework of just laws governing the economy, because Western governments have long been puppets and playmates of private or corporate economic interests, as Pius XI saw almost 90 years ago (see Quadragesimo Anno, §109). In overreaction to this peculiar vice of capitalism, communist and socialist governments seek to assimilate the market to themselves and to exercise total control, which suppresses individual initiative, personal responsibility, and the development of moral and intellectual virtue in the citizenry. As many popes have pointed out, the dizzying pendulum swing from socialism to capitalism and back again is not an inevitable ebb and flow of contrary natural forces but the conscious, if diffuse, result of a perverted relationship between the political and the economic domains, founded on a false understanding of each.
Supporters of free-market economics are begging the question when they invoke the so-called “science of economics.” There is no such thing, nor are there economic laws in the sense in which these people seem to think there are. There are social mores and political constructs that dictate economic attitudes, and these produce patterns that are then abstracted as laws by sociologists. It’s like modern Freudian psychology. You can predict what men will do in a bordello, or what a sexually obsessed novelist like D.H. Lawrence is going to write about, but you cannot construct a theory of human nature on that basis.
History offers a great deal more than the record of economic transactions. History shows us an example of a longstanding and relatively stable social order in which, by and large, everything was subordinated to the Catholic faith. This is not a matter of personal opinion but of historical evidence. Take, for example, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars—a wonderful book that shows how Catholic medieval England was, before the “Reformers” destroyed it.
This catholicity of medieval society was decisively political and economic. The vital, qualitative difference between Middle Ages and modernity is that the former deliberately aimed at and attained a common good anchored in metaphysical and religious truth, while the latter has just as deliberately chosen to forego the universality and objectivity of the good and the reality of an ultimate end for man. In doing so, modern liberalism—the parent of all of our defective political and economic theories and systems—both eviscerates the notions and obstructs the achievement of right, justice, prudence, unity, and peace, as Popes Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, and Pius XI perceived so clearly.
The common good was not attained more consistently in the Middle Ages merely because life was “simpler back then.” It was attained because Europe was traditionally Catholic in theory and in practice. The whole modern West is, in contrast, liberally Protestant in theory and in practice. This is the real difference that separates Catholic social teaching from all rival theories of social organization and prosperity.
Each of Thomas Storck’s important books, The Catholic Milieu and Foundations of a Catholic Political Order, features a brilliant chapter on economics that punctures the balloons of our modern prejudices about money, business, and statecraft. Contrary to what his critics maintain, proponents of Catholic Social Teaching (like Storck) do not assert that the government should dictate all details of wages or control all aspects of the economy. In fact, the whole point of the principle of subsidiarity and of the “guilds” that over a century of popes have recommended is to carve out a via media between state autonomy and corporate hegemony. What they do assert, however, in harmony with papal teaching is that the government cannot and must not abdicate its solemn responsibility to regulate the economy in such a fashion that the largest number of citizens may become property-owners, that the rights and duties of owners, managers, and workers may be guaranteed, and that the distribution of wealth may not be marred by enormous excesses and deficiencies.
These are subjects that Storck and other distributists have thoroughly discussed. If the free marketeers won’t pay attention to their arguments and prefer to knock down straw men, what can one do? It’s like trying to talk about chastity education to a sex education expert. He will say, perhaps shaking his head: “It can’t be done, it’s unrealistic; kids will be kids, you know, and you’ve got to give them condoms. Your idealism is admirable but we live in a real world with real problems,” etc. No. The “real world” is not whatever uncontrollable mess fallen human beings have got themselves into by their erroneous ideas and idiotic decisions. It is the world that God created, that Christ redeemed, that the Holy Spirit can penetrate, that the Church spiritually rules, and that Christians are obliged to heal and elevate: this is how we must see the world.
The Catholic knows that a just social order is possible because it has existed, to an impressive if still imperfect extent, in other ages and places. He also knows that our society is profoundly unjust because it refuses to abide by the natural and supernatural principles on which any sane and flourishing society must be founded. He knows, like the chastity educator, that the desire for, availability of, and possession of nearly unlimited material goods spells doom for the human spirit and its freedom to achieve lasting good. Our materialistic society is lacking what might be called economic chastity—the very problem St. Thomas Aquinas was talking about when he explained what it meant to entangle oneself in worldly business.