Last month the New York Times hosted a discussion on the question, “Has Capitalism Become Incompatible With Christianity?” There’s lots to be said about the “Room for Debate” feature, including a note on the caption for the lead image in the introduction.
The image is a rendering of the classic scene from the Gospels, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. The NYT caption reads thus: “Jesus comes down hard on the bankers of his day.” Perhaps that’s a bit of ideological balance for the phrasing of the debate question itself, which supposes that at least at one time that “capitalism” and Christianity were compatible, even if they are no longer.
Occasioned by the NYT feature, although not a direct response, is a piece today over at Think Christian, in which I introduce what I consider to be some important distinctions to keep in mind when thinking about the Christian faith and economics.
In his contribution to the NYT debate, Michael Novak invokes the now-classic distinction that John Paul II makes in Centesimus Annus. What do we mean by the term capitalism? From the contributors to the NYT debate itself, you can find quite a diversity of opinion about what this term does and does not involve.
As John Paul II writes, one definition of capitalism is “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector.” That’s the definition that Novak uses. But opponents of capitalism often have in mind something else. As John Paul II puts it, “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.”
For some, capitalism is by definition that which oppresses and where “greed is good.” But seeking profit, or ones own interests, in the marketplace is not to be conflated with greed. Thus John Paul II notes, “The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied.”
A final point has to do with the thickness of our social life. We are not simply political and economic actors, but human persons with a rich variety of social relationships. Again, from Centesimus Annus:
Apart from the family, other intermediate communities exercise primary functions and give life to specific networks of solidarity. These develop as real communities of persons and strengthen the social fabric, preventing society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass, as unfortunately often happens today. It is in interrelationships on many levels that a person lives, and that society becomes more “personalized”. The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of State administration. People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve. Man remains above all a being who seeks the truth and strives to live in that truth, deepening his understanding of it through a dialogue which involves past and future generations.
Another way of putting this is that since human beings have interests that are not merely political or economic, we have associations, relationships, and institutions that are not primarily political or economic. First among these, perhaps, is the family, but also we must include the church as well as other “mediating” institutions of civil society. These are the foundations of the “moral-cultural system” at the heart of Michael Novak’s description of “democratic capitalism.”