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I no longer go to Catholic mass, yet I typically spend some time on the weekend reflecting on the Church and what has driven me from it. When I was a young kid, I used to read folks like St. Thomas Aquinas as being staunch defenders of private property who respected the sorts of things that I have come to appreciate today. And when I had in the past come across various Papal Encyclicals I took a pretty charitable reading of them too. For example, in one of the most famous of the Papal Encyclicals, the Rerum Novarum, in Pope Leo XIII’s position on the horrible working conditions (supposed) in the late 19th century, he explicitly advocated for a “living wage” but in doing so he took great pains to make sure to remind readers that private property was part of the natural law and that this position was being delivered from a moral pulpit. However, a closer reading of the encyclical would certainly leave you wondering why the Pope also made explicit the need for the state to be involved in the direct promotion of social justice.

Whether this was an honest attempt to reconcile a classical liberal view with a tough reality is neither here nor there. I had to choke my way through Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday of homilies and church newsletters that basically said, “Pope Leo XIII condemned capitalism and advocated for living wages and a stronger role for government, and in doing it he affirmed the special role the poor have for the Catholic faith.”

That’s hard enough to stomach knowing that no one in the pews, including me at the time, knew where their proclamations were coming from, or what the true message of those encyclicals were. The exalted non-lay people in the parish delivered the message, and we stupid lambs just accepted it. Sorry, that’s not my cup of tea, eternal hell be damned.

But that’s just not all. I am making my way through another Catholic apologetic this evening and in it the chapter on the horrors of “Consumerism” includes the following (among the many other absolute misconceptions and misrepresentations*):

we may begin to connect our rationalizations to a system of thought long in subtle conflict with Christianity. First nurtured in the West by Sir Francis Bacon, it culminated in the brazenly materialistic ideologies of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Seemingly opposed to each other , both “free-market” and “Communist” schemes nonetheless aim to gratify an unending expansion of wants — Smith’s in practice merely being more effective and less restrictive.

Right, and that’s the way to draw me back into the church. Even reading the Wealth of Nations directly does not yield the claim that crass materialism is an ideology worthy of pursuit. Indeed there are many passages therein where Smith takes precisely the opposite position. I wonder if these people have ever read Smith? What’s the deal with treating one of the most thoughtful people ever to have walked in the Western world as if he is a uni-dimensional caricature of a capitalism he neither created nor endorsed? When I do a book club on Smith we’ll revisit some of those passages. But of course, what is most patently absurd with this skewering of Smith is that it is flat wrong and blatantly ignorant. In 1757, 19 years before he wrote the Wealth of Nations (and also the book he continued to edit and rework right up until his death in 1790, 14 years after he wrote Wealth of Nations), he wrote the Theory of Moral Sentiments. That book was not merely a precursor of the Wealth of Nations, where Smith delivers the message that any exchange oriented society (or any one for that matter) falls apart without the better angels of our nature taking a leading role in our life, but he writes copiously on materialism. Here is just a little sampling for you:

(Part IV) where he questions the very importance of the material wealth provided by free-exchange systems … “Power and riches appear . . . to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body.” The machines in question consist “of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor.”  “. . . the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

Read that last sentence again. The absence of material AND power is seen here taking a pretty high place. Indeed, let me defend Karl Marx at this point before sharing a few additional passages. Marx, as I read him, was most certainly NOT offering up a vision of the future in which materialism was dominant. Indeed, the point of his historical methodology was that capitalism had already delivered the goods in such a spectacular way that we were now in a position to move beyond focusing on the crass materialism that capitalism is all about. Hence his suggestion that under the (peacefully evolved) future socialism we’d all have everything we’d need so that we can spend time walking in the morning, reading poetry in the afternoon and making music in the evening so to speak. He may have been wrong, but I don’t read Marx with my 2012 eyeglasses as advocating the materialism that Mr. Brende is skewering.

OK, back to Smith on the abundance of materials:

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility?” “All their pockets,” … “are stuffed with little conveniencies . . . . They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles . . . . some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.”

Here is the poor man’s son’s trouble:

the poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition . . . .” This son admires the condition of the rich, and soon finds himself longing for a palace, a carriage, and servants; and to obtain them, he “labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors.” … “he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them.”

Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it

And all of our hard work?

It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility.”

Russ Roberts and Dan Klein did a long series of discussions on TMS. You can find them here. Gosh, I am too worked up right now to keep going. Reflecting on the rest of the anti-consumerism that is jammed down my throat every time I walk into a (really ornate) church makes my skin crawl. Think about this – do folks understand that modern capitalism is perhaps the only “system” in human history that fosters human dependence on one another and peaceful interactions among people who might otherwise not care if each other existed and if they knew of their existence might perhaps wish them dead? And when we hear in yet another homily (and we will) that modern capitalism is a “structure of sin” and the only choice we have is to dematerialize, detach and dissociate with the bad priorities that our modern system represents, do we understand that this means to dissociate with the very virtues that such a system inculcates too – such as trust, reliability, discipline, and more? I doubt it.

Sorry folks. But the Church has always been, and will always be, an authoritarian menace, dressing up the incredible importance of natural law and using the rhetoric of Enlightenment thinkers (with whom they hold great disdain, even Hume is vilified in the orthodox Catholic community … Hume!) to impose its particular brand of nastiness on the unwashed masses. Are there good people in the Church? Sure. But there are good people in government too, and the same eye cast upon that inglorious institution of men ought to be cast upon every other institution of men. It was men who decided to take liberty with inserting stories in the New Testament that were not there when the texts were first discovered. It was men who sold indulgences. It was men who supposedly disdain materialism that were the world’s largest property owners for over 1,000 years. It was men who allow kids to go through 12 years of Catholic schooling without actually reading anything, and in fact claim that the word of God can only be spoken to them by the central planners of the Church. And so on.

Think about this – I don’t even want these bozos to go to hell, I just want them to allow me to go to hell on my own.

* Here is but one example of what is absurd about these sorts of writings. In celebrating the simple, ascetic lifestyles of pre-Industrial Revolution Christians, we are never told, ever, what exactly a simple life is. Do our dear authors know that if we could barely survive on the caloric consumption of our pre-industrial ancestors. They starved. And those who did not starve were not well nourished, though at the time it was not at all obvious to anyone that people could live to 90 years old as fully sentient and mobile beings. So would locking in a “reasonable” consumption level for the year 1550 be all we should ever be permitted to consume?

7 Responses to “Sunday Ponderance, My Church May Even Make Me Want to Defend Marx”

  1. Alex says:

    Lots of good stuff here, of course. I will need to spend more time getting my thoughts together to provide an acceptable response to what you write, but here are a few things that immediately came to mind:
    This is the fundamental paradox of all of Roman Catholic history. As a 14th century author cynically noted,
    “When the kindness of Constantine gave Holy Church endowments [referring to the forged Donation of Constantine] in lands and leases, lordships and servants, the Roman heard an angel cry on high above them, ‘This day dos ecclesiae has drunk venom And all who have Peter’s power are poisoned forever.’”
    After quoting this, a modern author goes on to say,
    “That conflict between the reach for the divine and the lure of earthly things was to be the central problem of the Middle Ages. The claim of the Church to spiritual leadership could never be made wholly credible to all its communicants when it was founded in material wealth [also referring to the Donation of Constantine]. The more riches the Church amassed, the more visible and disturbing became the flaw; nor could it ever be resolved, but continued to renew doubt and dissent in every century.”

    Regarding capitalism, I would conjecture that, like most things in the modern world, the Roman Catholic Church simply does not know how to react to something it views as so…modern. The Roman Church has always been suspicious of anything ‘new’ (this is what made Vatican II so revolutionary.. it went against everything the Roman Church had ever stood for.) I have never personally spoken to a traditionalist Catholic, but I suspect that many of them simply live their lives as if the Enlightenment never happened (even if they do reap benefits from it), and by argument a fortiori everything that came after it (such as the IR.) This rejection of modernity is true to a much lesser extent today than 100 years ago, but I imagine it still exists. So, perhaps the clerics who denounce capitalism (besides never taking an economics class in their lives) are actually just rejecting modernity; it sounds awkward and harsh to say such a thing, though, and so they resort to condemning one of its biggest symbols, capitalism. But, in general, from a Roman Catholic way of thinking there is profound ambiguity toward anything post-medieval. Protestantism was established with a more proto-modern mentality (for many reasons.. there is a lot to say on this topic, but now is not the time), and so it is not surprising that Protestant countries have always been more ‘trade’-friendly than Catholic ones. That and the fact that asceticism is shunned in Protestantism and held in the highest esteem in the RC Church. Also, in a way, the Roman Church’s viscerally medieval mindset is due to the Reformation, which led to the Counter-Reformation and an assurance that the world can change and ‘progress’ all it wants, but Rome would not follow. The world and all of its advancements simply passed the Church by, and it was not until the 1960s that the Church became self-conscious about its medievalness and lack of relevance to today’s culture.

    My last comment for now is that of course the Church is an authoritarian menace. Religion is not a democracy, nor should it be. But more than that, the Roman Catholic faith is built, both spiritually and temporally, with systems of hierarchy. Again, traditional Roman Catholicism doesn’t really have a response to the modern obsession with democracy. Theologically, the physical world reflects the divine world, and the latter is no democracy. Also, this is Catholicism.. of course the “stupid lambs” in the pews are just supposed to accept whatever the priest says. Catholicism wouldn’t work otherwise!

  2. Alex says:

    These quotes of what you wrote were supposed to go at the beginning of my response.. it didn’t make it in for some reason:

    “Reflecting on the rest of the anti-consumerism that is jammed down my throat every time I walk into a (really ornate) church makes my skin crawl…It was men who sold indulgences. It was men who supposedly disdain materialism that were the world’s largest property owners for over 1,000 years.”

  3. Speedmaster says:

    I hear you loud and clear. We’re rather devout Roman Catholics. And many of our Catholic friends are “progressives.” From what I’ve read and considered over the years, I don’t see how any Catholic can be anything but a libertarian.

    I try to explain that at least three of the 10 Commandments are against theft in one form or another, and from my vantage point that’s a pretty clear defense of private property rights.

    Another nit, the call to help others is, in my opinion, an individual mandate, not a group mandate.

    The fact that people like Ted Kennedy, Biden, Pelosi, etc. can call themselves Catholic is a mystery to me.

  4. Speedmaster says:

    More than once I’ve come very close to walking out of Mass when someone at the podium tells me I need to support “greater access” to something or buy a certain kind of light bulb for my house.

  5. Rod says:

    I’m a Schwenkfelder, not a Roman Catholic, and the last thing I want to do is to criticize Roman Catholicism or to pretend that I have a working knowledge of its foundational beliefs.

    The Schwenkfelders are an original Reformation denomination — Caspar Schwenkfeld was a contemporary of Martin Luther and shared with Luther the cornerstone belief of protestants that Christians don’t need intercession between themselves and Christ, and that it’s up to Christians to read and interpret the Bible themselves, with the help but not the authority of the clergy. Thus the Schwenkfelders advocated the formation of “conventicles” — Bible-study meetings, which were conducted in meeting houses, like the Quakers but without the Quaker politics.

    There are only 2000 Schwenkfelders in the whole world, a testament to their aversion to evangelism. Another side note: two of Reagan’s cabinet secretaries were Schwenkfelders: Drew Lewis and Dick Schweiker.

  6. You can justify capitalism on religious grounds, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Buddhist… Some Marxists argued for a capitalist stage in Russia and then for China. … You can find individualist religionists who point out that to “love your neighbor as yourself” you must first love yourself. You can justify anything with anything if you want to invest the words. But rhetorical flourishes are not truths. The truth is integrated.

    Mathematics is the language of science; and biology cannot contradict physics and neither can trump an economic truth (assuming economics to be a science); and all must use the same mathematics. Indeed, they must all support each other in every claim, if they are true. You cannot have a biology where the algebraic trick of “completing the square” is invalid. It must all fit together with everything else.

    Some claims just don’t add up.

  7. C S says:

    Many Catholics find that what drives them out of the church is the hypocrisy of the rules and rituals. Please know there are churches out there who go by the “where is it written in the Bible?” theology.
    Your own writing at Thanksgiving on the Pilgrims is proof that God means for communities to be capitalists. And in the bigger picture, countries with the most liberty and opportunity are the most productive.
    There are plenty of scriptures like “Prosperity is the reward of the righteous”. And 2 Corinthians 3:17 Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Also, Luke 4:18 “I have come to proclaim liberty to the captives” (or “set at liberty those who are oppressed”).
    It’s always best to refer directly to the source, the Bible, to interpret for yourself instead of believing what church authorities (I call them Pharisees) say.

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