This is from Centesimus Annus. Here John Paul II reflects on two meanings of the word “capitalism.”

“Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

“The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant 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, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy.” But if by “capitalism” is meant 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 sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

“The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.”

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Mark, the quote from CA is the closest any of the Pontiffs come to having a kind word about economic Liberalism (capitalism); I note that he could not sustain the good will for even a full sentence, and ends up saying, “when capitalism is good, it really is something else.”

  2. The “Get out of Morality” free card of the fundamentalist capitalist is always an amazing thing to watch. The Chickens come home to roost and so they put them in a line and sponsor a fine burlesque show number entitled “Thats Business” (with many winks and toothy smiles) and everyone is supposed to nod in accord. Interestingly, most not only nod in accord, they applaud vigorously as though the business transaction should occur, unlike every other human intercourse, in an amoral context. It remains one of the more entrenched shibboleth of the capitalist system and is most prevalent in the more atomized and faceless corporate context where “team-building” seminars abound.

    Nothing is quite so Marxist, in its own way than the Fortune 500 Corporation

  3. In response to the dual definition, yes and yes, not yes and no. The latter definition presumes a liberty under law, the real thing acknowledges a liberty beyond the law, though consistent with it and there to the enforcement. The Pope never really experienced Capitalism as defined by Smith, practiced here, though always under attack, and acknowledged in its reasonable relation to Protestant Christianity, the underlying mores to our polity. See. Opitz, Capitalism and Christianity, Allies not Enemies. The latter kind of capitalism defined by the Pope goes well to medieval relation, but misses the mark of a Reforming temperament centered in a personal relationship directly with Christ, wnich militates against an ecclesiasticum centered in regulating belief, and there from external restraint, not internal constraint. Fiat Lux

  4. The tension within a democracy to address the well-being, survival and happiness of the population within a apolitical economic construct is well articulated with the Centesimus Annus writings quoted herein. Capitalism has a very long evolutionary history. The current paradigm, global financial capitalism, appears to be amoral and quite frankly, heartless. Sometimes folk will get so deeply involved in a terrible thing, that it becomes too much for them to bear and they divorce themselves from the social costs of their acts. They become members of a lifeless, heartless mass. And they are heard saying things as “the purpose of business is to maximize profits.” Or “the creation of wealth is a good thing for all.” Or “we need growth to improve the economy.” Or “what we need to be speaking about are jobs.” Modern capitalism seems to rob people from speaking about themselves. The Christ had a very clear commandment about all of this, “thou shall love they neighbor as thyself.” It wasn’t a suggestion. Pope John Paul II posed the tension within the juxtaposition of democracy and modern capitalism as a moral dilemma: is it good that capitalism brings forth abundance for many but relegates some to poverty; or should we see the poor and the rich being equally lost in a system that rewards neither for loving each other as they would themselves? The message from the Christ was to love, not to judge your neighbor. Maybe we should start there.

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