I have not seen Michael Moore’s latest film Capitalism: A Love Story. Therefore this is certainly not a movie review, for those who might have been expecting one. After what I have read recently, however, about the content of the movie – particularly it’s Catholic content, it is something I think I am going to have to see for myself. An article in The Guardian (for which I tip my hat to Facebook friend Brennan Hartley for) explores the presence of Catholic social teaching in Moore’s latest film, and in what may be a shock to at least some folks, Moore’s professed Catholicism.
Many of the readers here at TAC, however, will probably not be so surprised; we are all familiar enough with the specter of the liberal Catholic. There is a good aspect, a bad aspect, and a downright ugly aspect to what I typically encounter on the Catholic left, and Moore is the epitome of this trend.
The Good: There is absolutely no doubt that the tradition of Catholic social thought is critical of “laissez-faire” capitalism and outspoken in its condemnation of great disparities in wealth. Many Catholics, including myself on numerous occasions, have highlighted these criticisms. As Pope Benedict reminded us in Caritas in Veritate as well, there is no division of Catholic social thought into “pre” and “post” Conciliar schools. In other words, the Catholic critique of capitalism cannot be attributed to an influence of liberalism or socialism, since it began not only in conjunction with, but as a necessary compliment to, the Church’s strong opposition to atheistic socialism and communism.
I believe Catholic social teaching does call each and every Catholic to a much higher standard of economic behavior than many non-Catholic economic theorists and moralizers have set. And I believe the Catholic assessment of political intervention into economics is in no way compatible with a strictly principled libertarian position that limits the role of government to the prevention of force and fraud. There simply isn’t a shred of support for that position in the social teaching of the Church, even when subsidiarity is taken into account. I look forward to the com-box debates on that one.
The Bad: The Catholic Church critiques capitalism but it does not condemn it, not in the same way she condemned communism. Since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, the Church has strongly defended private property rights and the existence of reasonably-regulated markets. In such high esteem does the Church hold private property that she has called, since the publication of that encyclical, for more of it to be distributed.
In recent times, both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have insisted that markets, the State, and numerous “intermediate” organizations have a role to play in establishing and maintaining the common good – the goal to which all of these social institutions are subordinated.
We might dispute the extent to which an economy that preserved private property and freedom of trade while being subordinated to, and regulated by, a higher moral standard could still be called “capitalist”. In my view, economic democracy, worker ownership, some redistribution of wealth and regulation do not amount to either the obliteration of capitalism or the coming of socialism, but are simply the building blocks of the Civilization of Love that our Pontiffs have called us to create.
In that sense, I refuse to join in the chorus of blanket condemnations of “capitalism” (one of the priests Moore interviews, I believe, goes much too far, certainly much further than the Papacy has gone) – what I think most of us really want is a type of capitalism that can work well for everyone, where economic growth is proportionately distributed in accordance with some basic principles of human dignity and justice.
The Ugly: What kind of economic system we have really doesn’t mean much if we ignore the most vulnerable, the least among us. Of course I am talking about unborn children, and other groups that have been targeted by the materialist-hedonists as obstacles to a pleasurable life. There is absolutely no social justice in a society that recognizes a so-called “right” to dispose of human life as if it were trash. Moore is on record as being pro-choice.
Now, I may well work with someone like Moore on a common project – say, finding ways to apply distributist principles to communities that are suffering economically. But it is an extreme challenge for me to take seriously a person’s commitment to social justice when they support a policy that clearly indicates a rejection of life as a gift from God, reducing it instead to an alienable commodity. How can one seriously speak of Christ while rejecting the sacredness of life itself?
Moore would do well to read Caritas in Veritate: social justice is important, but its only true foundation is the Christian Humanism that Pope Benedict outlines towards the end of that encyclical. Writing not only of abortion but of euthanasia and a whole host of technological advancements that will or already do allow men to manipulate the basic foundations of human life, the pope wrote:
These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life. Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development? How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human? What is astonishing is the arbitrary and selective determination of what to put forward today as worthy of respect. Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human.
There really is no evil that the capitalist bogey-man can impose on you or I that we cannot resist. Even under capitalism, with all of its ills and problems crying out for solutions, a person can retain their moral dignity and their spiritual practice. I want to fix the problems of capitalism as much as Moore does, but not at the price of my soul. Previously, for me, this meant rejecting an ideology of violent revolution.
Now it means rejecting a future in which the economic problems of society may be solved, or at least mitigated, but in which the weakest members of society are murdered and disposed of like garbage. That is not a future that I want to fight for, and it is not a future which any Catholic who cares in the slightest about the teachings of the Church or their own conscience can possibly fight for.
To put it another way, it doesn’t matter how many uninsured people you bring coverage to if you are simultaneously aiding and abetting child murder. In Matthew 25 Christ identifies himself with the least of our brothers – the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, etc. It is an awfully huge, and in my view, stupid gamble to assume that unborn children don’t have a special place in God’s infinite mercy, or that goodness towards one group of people will negate the wholesale slaughter of an even more vulnerable group.