By Fr. John Trugilio Jr., Phd, Thd
I often listen to Rush Limbaugh and find him to be an intelligent man and an erudite conservative journalist. He uses common sense and logic to expose the fallacious arguments of liberal progressives. Unfortunately, he himself has fallen into a trap by which he erroneously extrapolates a false premise from the recent papal document from Pope Francis.
Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) is an apostolic exhortation issued on November 24, 2013. While not an ex cathedra infallible document, it nevertheless contains ordinary papal magisterial teaching that demands submission of mind and will by faithful Catholics.
Rush is uncharacteristically inaccurate in his quotations. Pope Francis did not criticize unfettered capitalism; he used the phrase unfettered consumerism. The late and great Father Richard John Neuhaus defined consumerism as:
‘[P]recisely, the consuming of life by the things consumed. It is living in a manner that is measured by having rather than being. As Pope John Paul II makes clear, consumerism is hardly the sin of the rich. The poor, driven by discontent and envy, may be as consumed by what they do not have as the rich are consumed by what they do have. The question is not, certainly not most importantly, a question about economics. It is first and foremost a cultural and moral problem requiring a cultural and moral remedy.’
Capitalism is an economic and political ideology, whereas consumerism is a personal and individual ideology. The former is focused on a free market; the latter is obsessed with the acquisition of goods in and of themselves. Blessed John Paul II made the distinction that communism and consumerism are far extremes, and both threaten human freedom. One denies the right to access of necessary goods; the other deifies materialism and promotes avarice, greed and envy. A free market system, on the other hand, treats human beings equally, not giving undo advantage to card-carrying members of the Communist Party while penalizing those who express some political dissent.
What Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul, Pope Leo and others have consistently been saying and teaching, however, is that the individual person is a moral agent. He must answer to God for what he did or did not do to help his neighbor in need. The Gospel of Matthew ends by separating the sheep from goats based on what each individual did or did not do to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and so on. It is not a judgment of government policies or agencies; it is a personal judgment on each one of us.
That said, besides personal acts of Christian charity, it is logical and reasonable, prudent and necessary to pool resources and, even for the state, to help in cases where the most needy and most urgent cases are helped. Yet no pope ever promoted, nor called for, a welfare state that perpetually cares for the poor. The ultimate goal is to enable the poor to rise above poverty and reach a level of dignity commensurate with their human dignity.
Access to necessary goods is a natural right. That does not mean, however, that the natural moral law requires the poor to become enslaved to the state by permanently keeping them dependent. Rush calls Pope Francis a Socialist at best and a Communist at worst. Does this sound like a commie comment?
‘Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses.’ (no. 202)
Contrary to what many modern public school textbooks currently tell our children, capitalism was actually created during the high Middle Ages and, as Michael Novak wrote in 2003, Catholicism is what created it. While feudalism sustained Christendom from the fall of the Roman Empire (476 A.D.) through the so-called Dark Ages, during the 12th to 14th centuries, the middle class arose thanks to capitalism, which eventually replaced feudalism. Medieval guilds and religious orders, such as the Cistercians, became contemporary entrepreneurs of their time.
‘They mastered rational cost accounting, plowed all profits back into new ventures, and moved capital around from one venue to another, cutting losses where necessary, and pursuing new opportunities when feasible. They dominated iron production in central France and wool production (for export) in England. They were cheerful and energetic. Being few in number, the Cistercians needed labor-saving devices. They were a great spur to technological development. Their monasteries ‘were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time.’ (Novak)
Thomas Woods’ How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization has an entire chapter titled “The Church and Economics” in which he, too, proposes that money was not an artificial product of government (crown or parliament), but a result of a voluntary process between merchants. Barter became more and more impractical when dealing with perishable items and dealing with transporting goods over long distances. Religious orders like the Cistercians devised accounting systems by which goods could be bought and sold between fellow monks, and this was duplicated by lay merchants who participated in the process.
While the secular states were governed by aristocracies and monarchies, and while the Church herself is hierarchical, it is still Catholic doctrine that all men and women are created in the image of God and by baptism are considered children of God. That spiritual equality was translated into an economic equality, which transcended the political. The emerging middle class came from the peasant class. They did so because their faith taught them they were equal in the eyes of God and therefore had equal opportunities to improve their material situation. Those who could not – the destitute poor, the lame, widowed and orphaned – relied on the Christian charity of the nobility and the emerging middle class.
It was the Church who literally created the colleges and universities, hospitals and orphanages, and who ran the poor houses and soup kitchens. The secular state (government) did not create these institutions; religious orders and dioceses did. Christian charity motivated those who had more to help those who had less.
When you read Evangelii Gaudium in its entirety, it continues the papal magisterium found in Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Mater et Magistra, Gaudium et Spes, Centesimus Annus, and, of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The very reason a nation has banking and finance laws is that human beings are not perfect. Original sin affects everyone, and some people, be they CEOs, CFOs, bankers or brokers, sometimes make bad choices that produce bad effects that cause great harm to many innocent people. I know of no conservative or liberal, Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian who would advocate the repeal of laws barring insider trading.
We need laws to maintain some parameters on banks and stock brokers to protect people from abuse and exploitation. Republicans and Democrats dispute the length, breadth and depth of such legal regulations, but even a free market has some borders that cannot be ignored. Limited government is still very different from no government. Some, even if minimal, legislation is needed since not everyone acts prudently or fairly or for pristine motives.
That said, it was totally unfair and inaccurate of Rush to attack Pope Francis for addressing a letter as head of the Roman Catholic Church to his more than one billion members. The pontiff was merely reiterating consistent Church teaching that supports a free market, but also reminds the moral obligation to act responsibly, honestly and prudently. No one can command generosity but it is something which should be encouraged and promoted. Welfare dependency helps neither the individual nor the nation. Some welfare is necessary for those who cannot be helped by private or non-profit charitable organizations. However, the goal is always to help move those into economic independence and become self-sufficient.
Laborem Exercens teaches us the sanctity of human work. The Catechism tells us that the Catholic Church always believes justice and solidarity are essential and necessary to human freedom. Justice is distributive, commutative and social. Unfettered consumerism is not synonymous with capitalism. A free market system respects human freedom and autonomy. Consumerism is an abuse and an extreme. Communism wrongly treated human labor as a means of production for the state. Consumerism wrongly treats the product of human labor and of the free market as the final source of happiness and fulfillment.
Material things, while helpful, do not produce enduring and true happiness. They make life easier, more comfortable and more convenient. Technology helps cure sickness and disease and helps makes life less a burden. All Pope Francis is warning is that the possession and acquisition of goods is not salvific, nor does it bring lasting joy. Pleasure is temporary, whereas joy can be eternal.
The pontiff is not forcing any nation or government to abandon capitalism; he’s not advocating socialism let alone communism. He is, however, reminding Catholics all over the globe that we must buy and sell prudently while using our consciences. In that light, I see no reason for Rush to take offense or issue with Pope Francis.
I highly urge Rush to read Father Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market and John Horvat’s Return to Order. Mr. Horvat does a splendid job explaining the notion of frenetic intemperance, which is a cousin of unfettered consumerism. Father Sirico precisely shows that freedom requires a free market and that greed is no friend of capitalism. Rather, greed flourishes under socialism.
Fr. John Trugilio Jr, PhD, ThD is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg and President of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. His blog can be viewed at http://blackbiretta.blogspot.com/