animal farm

Fr. Dwight Longenecker follows up on the Pope’s recent promotion of cooperatives as a better alternative to actually owning your own business.  In doing so he rolls out a false dichotomy which is uttered so often it reminds me of how the Constitution calls for separation of church and state. It doesn’t, and Catholic teaching doesn’t call for checks on capitalism either.

To understand Pope Francis’ economics we need to turn away from the simplistic clash between left-wing socialism and right-wing capitalism. Catholic social teaching condemns socialism for substituting state systems of welfare for personal responsibility, and for obliterating individual freedoms through oppressive state control. Catholic social teaching also condemns unrestrained capitalism for focusing only on the quest for wealth at the expense of workers, the environment and the common good.

The Church condemns greed not ‘excess capitalism.’ Capitalism is just what happens when people are left alone to use their own property and energy. It really isn’t an ‘ism’ at all. It’s just natural rights and freedom. In its other sense ‘Capitalism’, as in the concentration of wealth and capacity in the hands of a few, is a result of oppressive laws which infringe upon the rights of others. That kind of capitalism doesn’t come from too much freedom, but from too little.

Pope St. John Paul II called both socialism and capitalism, “Atheistic, materialistic systems.” What he meant was that both systems focus only on the worldly attainment of money and power. They operate as if God does not exist, and each in their own way, subject the human person to the drive for wealth and power. In doing so, devotees of both systems worship money— “the devil’s dung.”

Sourcing contemporary encyclicals exclusively is a dangerous way to interpret Catholic teaching. Looking at society as it stood, Pope John Paul saw atheistic banking and finance empires concentrating wealth. This doesn’t mean we should check the God-given freedom to own and operate an enterprise. Money is the root of all evil, not evil in itself. It’s just a way to facilitate exchange, a transfer of power. It has to be misused to be called ‘dung’.

Instead, in his address to the members of the Italian co operative movement, Pope Francis emphasized economic principles that focus on the human person and the human family. The Italian Confederation of Cooperatives encourages private enterprise, helps fund start up businesses and draws people together into shared ownership of businesses for their own welfare and the assistance of the poor.

A cooperative illustrates one of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching: solidarity. Solidarity is the shared community of individuals and families for the common good. The Catholic solidarity principle is different from socialism because it is from the ground up rather than the top down. Socialism and communism attempt to impose a form of solidarity through state control whereas true solidarity is a genuine movement of the people for the people and by the people.

This turns the concept of subsidiarity on its head. Subsidiarity is the concentration of power as close to grass roots as possible, not solidarity. Socialists like to pretend that their form of solidarity is all about the people too but it never is. It just does what co-ops do. It removes real ownership and hands power to high-level administrators.

Someone has to run a co-op and it can’t be the owners because if everyone’s an owner than no-one is.