A short history of Catholic anti-capitalism


Judging by the howls of American conservatives, one could be forgiven for believing that Pope Francis was the first Catholic to criticize capitalism. But, in fact, the Catholic Church has a long history of resistance to capitalism, dating back to the very origins of the latter system in the early modern period.

The Church’s historic opposition to capitalism has complex roots. Perhaps the most obvious of these involves the prominent place of moneylending in capitalist economies – a practice the Catholic Church forbade for much of the medieval and early modern periods, citing Jesus’s expulsion of the moneylenders from the Jerusalem Temple, and which it only grudgingly accepted in subsequent centuries.

More recently, the Catholic Church has critiqued capitalism on different grounds: as a newfangled social order that, along with its historical twin socialism, threatened to upend inherited hierarchies and time-honored social stability. Decidedly pre-modern in its outlook, the nineteenth-century Catholic Church condemned alike the apostles of Adam Smith and Karl Marx as rank materialists: persons who believed the way to improvement resided in this world rather than the next; and who would substitute the laws of man and nature for the laws of God.

These sentiments – both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist – would be codified by Pope Leo XIII in the 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum. Among the papacy’s first major statements on the social and economic philosophies then vying for humanity’s hearts and minds, Rerum novarum affirmed the Church’s support for private property, but also lent its imprimatur to collective bargaining, and insisted that wages should be determined, not by what the market would bear, but rather by what decency dictated. Perhaps most importantly, in light of Francis’s papacy, Leo XIII’s declaration also articulated the preferential place of the poor in Catholic economic teaching.

In the century to come, the Church would reaffirm this middle course between capitalism and socialism time and again – not only in official Church teachings like Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno, but in everyday practice. Indeed, in the decades following the First World War, Catholic clergy and laity were expected, as a matter of course, to lend their support to labor in its fight against capital. And during the Great Depression, Father Charles Coughlin became one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s foremost critics on the left. Though best remembered for his caustic antisemitism, Coughlin was known in his day as an aggressive social justice crusader whose favored policies included a bold program of wealth redistribution and stronger guarantees for the rights of workers.

So why, in light of this history, do many American conservatives now expect Francis, and the Catholic Church more broadly, to serve as approving allies of capitalism? There are two main reasons. First, in the midst of the Cold War, the Church, like nearly every other global institution, was forced to take sides the contest between capitalism and communism. Not surprisingly, given Catholicism’s traditional heartland and the Soviet Union’s hostility to organized religion, the church lent its implicit – if not wholehearted – support to the capitalist West. Especially during the papacy of John Paul II, whose native Poland suffered under Soviet domination, the church became closely linked with anti-communism – and thus, reflexively, with support for capitalism.

Secondly, during the postwar decades, American Catholics reached a détente with the country’s evangelicals, joining forces in a culture war crusade against everything from abortion to same-sex marriage. In the process, they put aside the economic issues that had dominated church life for much of the previous century and joined a Republican political coalition whose tenets included support, not only for Catholic social teachings, but for laissez-faire capitalism as well.

And yet, even during this period – as the pope cozied up to Ronald Reagan and the American laity cast off its old support for collective bargaining – the Church’s stance on capitalism remained largely unchanged. In 1986, for instance, the Catholic Bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter entitled “Economic Justice for All,” which declared everything from medical care and housing to education and employment human rights, insisted that “all members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable,” and pronounced that “every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.”

Six years later, John Paul II issued an encyclical entitled Centesimus annus, which despite its author’s anti-communist commitments, did nothing to soften the Church’s position on capitalism. By no means contradictory, the 1991 encyclical instead reaffirmed the Church’s long-standing commitment to a middle ground between Mammon and Marx.

In Francis, then, Catholics do not have a departure in doctrine, but rather a shift in emphasis – from the social teachings that preoccupied the Church for much of the last half century to the economic concerns that took precedence in an earlier era. Far from being a process of ‘modernization,’ the faith of Francis instead represents a return to an earlier era in Church history.

That many conservatives should be unaware of this history is no shock. Most Americans, after all, are neither historians nor theologians. And yet something else, beyond mere surprise, seems to be at work in conservatives’ response to Francis: a bewilderment that Christianity can be anything other than a bulwark of the market; and a shock that serious minds should continue to consider a world after capital.


** Special thanks to my friend and colleague Bill Cossen, without whose insight this piece would have been impossible. **


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