pope francisCatholic Answers’ indefatigable Jimmy Akin recently defended Pope Francis against charges of Marxism leveled by the likes of the irrepressible Rush Limbaugh. In a word, Pope Francis is not a Marxist: on that score, Akin is flat right and Limbaugh flat wrong. The Pope concerns himself about Catholic social teaching and nothing more. Fair enough.

However, the story—notwithstanding its flatness—does not end there. While, as Akin clarifies, Pope Francis avers with unequivocality that “Marxist ideology is wrong,” he also reaffirms the West’s sneaking suspicion that the Pope holds out against capitalism to boot—and by the sound of it, just as steadfastly so. This rekindles the just-now-assuaged concern of many: it’s not capitalism which killed an astronomical amount of millions over the last two centuries, after all.

So what is all this Catholic criticism of limited government and free enterprise—two doctrines long supported, not opposed, by Classical and Medieval thought?

In an uncharacteristically moderate tone, I will mediate between Akin’s position and Limbaugh’s (each of these has my deference…in his own purview) by showing what Catholic social teaching actually requires. Thomas Aquinas, Hans Ulrich Von Balthasar, and Pope Benedict XVI all lend voice to the teaching wisdom of encyclicals topically relevant to the matter, such as Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum.

I only assume this is what Pope Francis has been saying…

Here’s the upshot. Three simple propositions of life in a republic (particularly the American one) can be vindicated on the basis of the Natural Law distilled by such Catholic social teaching: 1) extremely limited government (microscopic even) in the context of sacrilized, “natural community” individualism, not a context of isolated, radical subjectivism; 2) subsidiarity based on liberty, not license; 3) capitalism, as long as it rejects consumerism. In each case, one notices, both a proper and an improper instance of a republican element suggests itself. The proper instance of each has its basis in the Natural Law. The close likeness being distinguished presents a cautionary example which subtly inverts the Natural Law. As such, even proper individualism is never more than a step away from devolving to subjectivism; liberty to license; capitalism to consumerism. Perhaps this has been the Pope’s point all along. One hopes.

In short, radical individualism (subjectivism), license, and consumerism follow only upon a wrongheaded conception of the sine qua nons demanded by republicanism and free enterprise.

But before delving into these three positions which may (or may not) contour the Pope’s critique of Western culture, as articulated in a handful of statements over the past six months, a few caveats bear mention. These serve to justify Limbaugh’s fear of papal Marxism a little, since his conjecture was based as much on what the Pope has not said as upon that which he has said.

First off, Limbaugh’s errant conclusion should be cursorily defended on the grounds of categorical logic alone: if one is not a capitalist, then what is he exactly? Any non-capitalist political economy posits one form or another of central planning, or simply, “statism.” Just as Justice Antonin Scalia regularly responds to opponents attempting to reify some sort of midpoint between a jurisprudence of Originalism and one of purely fabricated judge-made law (abandoning the fixed meaning of text for judicial ad hoc, instead): “Originalism is the only game in town.” At least, it is the only game which upholds government by law, not whimsy. The “mid-point” is mythic, imagined, imperium in imperio, “the principle of the excluded middle.” And suggesting otherwise is jurisprudential delusion. Well, similarly, capitalism is the “only non-statist political economy in town.” Suggesting otherwise is economic delusion. If your government takes certain action involving the exchange of commodities, then you have statism. Period. There is no middle ground between an economy run by government and one not run by it. Thus, rejecting capitalism and Marxism together has—as a pseudo-notion gaining alarming momentum in the Catholic world—never gotten off the unintelligibility horn.

Secondly, the above “excluded middle” theory of political economy accrues to the muddled definition of the term “capitalism” itself, now bastardized beyond all recognizability. “Capitalism” involves two concepts, and no more: 1) private ownership of property, or entitlement to benefit; 2) a rule against governmental impairment—proactive or retroactive—of private contracts (e.g. purchase or employment contracts). That’s all. Capitalism doesn’t involve anything more conceptually complex than that, evil oil tycoons and cartoonish swan dives into of troves of riches notwithstanding. And as Akin affirms, the Pope explicitly defends the former aspect of capitalism, holding in Evangelii Gaudium that “private ownership of goods is justified.” Yet, like most conservatives or liberals, he deigns against commenting on the (only slightly) more technical second element, private contracts. But whether he would affirm or deny it, the Catholic Church has long acknowledged the necessity of reasonably unmolested private contracting:

“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.” Rerum Novarum, p. 45: May 15, 1891. 

In short, humans should contract with one another fairly. If they don’t, they violate the Natural Law—but the sacrosanct freedom of contract obtains. Thus, Limbaugh’s concern about the Pope’s fusty attitude toward capitalism is fair, or at least understandable, given the concept’s abiding mis-reputation.

And it’s even more condonable in light of the Pope’s comment that he has known “many Marxists who were good people.” While that may be the plain truth, Marxism remains the most numerically murderous human force since the 1800’s. One doubts whether the Pope would similarly neglect to “feel offended” if he were to be confused with a National Socialist, from whose ranks certainly there emerges at least one “good person,” in the attenuated sense in which he uses the term (a loophole for calling Commies or Nazis good, in my humble opinion).

This cues up my third and final caveat in defense of Limbaugh, which will surely be received by many as a slur. Any understanding of political economy that manages to obviate all central planning remains virtually beyond the European or South American imagination. Now, before dialing the sensitivity police on me, please consider that I lived and studied at a Pontifical University in Europe with the best and brightest priests from all over the Old Continent and South America. Most of these priests with whom I studied considered themselves conservative-ish. And yet their conception of political economy failed in each case to escape the misguided, century-old European paradigm, which “spans” the “vast” continuum between nationalized and internationalized socialism, and no further. Thus, one fears that, in the Pope’s mind, left versus right speciously signifies competing conceptions of the nanny state’s administration of “the nursery,” and nothing more nuanced or libertarianized, like liberty versus the State.

Now, a word of caution regarding the above words of caution: these three caveats might easily be mistaken as threatening to swallow my defense (and Akin’s) of the Pope, whole. They do not. It bears repeating: he’s no Marxist.

More importantly still, neither do these defenses run afoul of Catholic social teaching, which (as stated above) firmly condemns the three false corollaries (as it affirms their proper likenesses) of limited government and free enterprise: 1) radical subjectivism or individualism; 2) license; 3) consumerism. Less-than-imaginative conservatives (together with the entire political left) have long presumed wrongly that political and cultural individualism is a bonum in se, that liberty equals license, and that consumerism is synonymous with capitalism.

The Pope rightly criticizes these three predominating elements of contemporary Western culture. Whether Limbaugh likes it or not, the Pontifical critique is probably even justified in designating America (we all know Papal criticisms of “the West” to be of America) the lion’s den: America is standard bearer for free enterprise, after all. One cannot deny it. But one does far better to rename the actual culprits—neither limited government nor capitalism itself—which brought about the devolution of individualism, liberty, and capitalism to their three inverted “pseudo versions.” Done properly, republicanism and its free political economy remain natural and thus, they retain their force for good (or more accurately, their means to control evil proclivities).

I designate the rightful culprits of the triple-substitution to be: the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation (the two camps which together formed the American republic). Mainline American conservatives trace their roots to their W.A.S.P. godfathers, the English Whigs, who synthesized Enlightenment and Reformation thought into a thoroughgoing Geist of American republicanism (a.k.a. “Prot-Enlight”), which is “wired Catholic, labeled Protestant, and currently functioning secular,” as I say in my book. (Well…some of the Catholic wiring was lost in the labeling: insistence on the Natural Law.)

Let’s look at each of these two camps, one at a time. But, first, in order to prove that I’m not being “sectarian” here—a neo-counter-Reformation Catholic, of sorts—I declare my firm belief that the average Catholic American in the 21st Century operates on the basis of these miscegenated doctrines of Prot-Enlight Modernism just as much as the present-day Protestants do (although neither of these groups, on account of their religiosity, are nearly as steeped in it as the grandchildren of the Enlightenment, the sec-progs). Irrespective of the phenomenon’s Prot-Enlight etiology, I’m happy to agree with any partisan that it is an American (and lesser so, a Western) phenomenon to be gotten around. It’s all of our problem, not excluding Catholics.

The Enlightenment posited radical individualism by rejecting the notion that duty arises from nature. The movement relegated mankind’s “natural communities”—family, neighborhood, Church—beneath the individual ego, which became the closest thing to a “sacred object” in human life. This was accomplished on the basis of rejecting the Natural Law, that is, by repudiating the proposition that any sense of morality, purpose, or intelligibility proceeds from nature. Curiously—and quite conveniently, I’ll add—most Enlightenment thinkers extricated the concept of “right” from nature (notwithstanding their failure to recognize the Natural Law and natural duty which situated such rights). One should fully recognize the effects of extricating right from duty in the 21st Century: the post-Enlightenment generations expect much and give little back to their communitythe phenomenology of the unchecked, self-interested ego. Accordingly, one finds the Enlightenment’s grandchildren, the sec-progs, narrowly accommodating only the selective groups they’ve deigned to honor.

Natural communities, on the other hand, are no longer seen as the requisite beneficiaries of the individual’s duty, care, or time. Ironically, the post-Enlightenment ego—which insists on its own whimsy as fiat in every other dimension of life—accepts that the state alone should have the power to force man back into community. This final turn ex post Enlightenment is more than a little ironic, given that the State bears the violent power of compulsion, whereas the natural communities only ever held their own preternatural power of persuasion to coax the individual therein.

The Reformation went drastically less far, reducing only the religious community to a radical individualism, whereby the relation to Christ came to be seen as utterly singular. The Reformation, that is, restrained its duty—and community—stripping to that of the sacramental community of faith, retaining family and neighborhood obligations wherever it could. Whereas the Enlightenment, occurring at roughly the same time, encouraged the individual to “opt out” of duty before the fundamental institutions of family (read: abortion clinics, divorce filings, and nursing homes) and neighborhood (read: empty town hall meetings and neighborhood watch committees), the Reformation rejected all this libertinism just as fervently as Catholic Christianity did. However, the “reformed” movement became increasingly atomistic; each new phase of Reformation came to be, itself, “reformed.” As Puritannical worship communities were stripped down closer and closer to single individuals, reform showed itself to be an infinite regression (i.e. today there are 10,000-plus sects and counting!). And whereas the initial Protestant critiques were primarily (valid, needed) structural ones, they quickly grew into doctrinal critiques which radically altered the individual’s relation to Christ and to nature. The religious community of believers, once called “the body of Christ,” lost that much its potency as the collective for the sanctifying and receiving of the sacraments, previously received en masse and in Mass. (Most but not all of the Protestant worship communities would jettison these sooner or later.)

While American Protestantism retained the selfsame humility lying at the heart of the Christian life—arguably more effectively even than American Catholicism—inarguably something new came to replace the quotidian concretization of grace being abandoned with the turn away from the sacraments: the “Protestant work ethic.” Something always gets sacrilized in the place of removed sacraments, like water rushing into refill the void left by removal: even Luther agreed that “God” is, in a cultural sense, whatever one holds most dear. Thus, in the fertile soil of the Protestant work ethic, careerism grew on the supply side, consumerism on the demand side. These fast became “sacred” within the culture of the young, Protestant nation. (If you doubt this, just ask any ten of your working friends to break their Tuesday night routine and to join you for a beer: at least nine will turn you down!) Capitalism thrived, but so did consumerism.

So, the amalgamized Prot-Enlight worldview of Modernism became the American way of life—the exemplar for the West—drawing from the de-naturalized ego on one side and from the de-naturalized view of labor on the other. Taken out of their natural context, ego and labor combined to form a staggering, unnatural new emphasis on careerism and consumerism—petty acquisitiveness—which in turn required privacy beyond all privacy. The West became a place marked by producing and consuming as ends in themselves, where one strives constantly to secure the conditions for the possibility of more producing and consuming: hermetic privacy, methodically calibrated routine, unprecedented new levels of material comfort, unwavering insistence on “a good night’s rest.” (Even the modern Epicurean insists the first night on his rest, such as to prop up his restlessness on the next!)

Strange as it sounds, all these surrogated for the different sort of ease or leisure formerly supplied by the more organic, natural community!

In reverse order, now, I’ll revisit the three aspects of what may be the Papal critique of culture.

The individual enjoys a natural right not to be bound by the state, as the Catholic Church has always maintained through the teachings of Augustine, Thomas, and Suarez. But this right of unboundedness does not divest him of his duty to his family, neighborhood, or Church; in fact, his freedom from the state heightens the duty. (Genuine republicanism is only possible when these natural communities reside at the center of the individual’s life.) After Prot-Enlight Modernism repudiated such natural communities, however, the individual in his radical freedom came to be measured as a producer-consumer, and no longer as a “good man,” “good son,” “good friend,” “good Christian,” or “good spouse,” etc. (This is not capitalism’s fault!) Correspondingly, the duty-abandoned individual came to view his unboundedness, not any longer as liberty—ordered freedom to pursue the true Good (rather than, say, a new house or a good night’s rest)—but rather as license—non-ordered freedom as a sort of end in itself: do whatever you want with your time. Couch all your critiques of areligious libertarianism here, as you like, which fashioned liberty into its own bonum in se (an Enlightenment byproduct—all right and no duty). And finally, in this relativistic state of being, the individual came to view the market of goods and services from an apolaustic, neo-pagan point of view, whereby commodities themselves became an “ism,” something to be almost believed in. (By the way, without the tempering of the natural community to cultivate virtuous aestheticism, the popular taste grew much more smutty.)

In this way, capitalism was conflated with consumerism, liberty with license, and communal, republican individualism with radical subjectivism. And in their removal from the context of nature, they were emptied of their ontological content, becoming their own most vapid perverse inflections—easily caricaturized by the statist agenda, which ever seeks to force individuals back into the State collective.

This seems to be what’s been at work in America—wired Catholic, labeled Protestant, and presently functioning secular. Articulating as much amounts to a critique of the crypto-Catholic culture of republicanism: “out yourself,” as the trend goes. Republicanism, especially in America, needs to re familiarize itself with its own sine qua nons. Thus far, Pope Francis’s message has been more like a crypto-Catholic critique of culture (than a critique of crypto-Catholic culture), whose hushed tones and abashed Catholicity have led some not unreasonable observers like Limbaugh to mislabel it—one hopes—a crypto-Marxist critique of both culture and Catholicism. Only time will tell if the Pope agrees with my hopeful characterization of his admonition to America, as the leading republic of the West, to return to the Medieval principles which once rendered it—forget prosperous—true, beautiful, and good.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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