Can Catholics Be Capitalists?

Last week I heard about the Pope's new writing Caritas In Veritate. For those whose Latin is rusty, that translates to "Charity In Truth." Most news I read indicated that the Pope was finally taking a stand regarding the financial crisis, condemning the capitalist swine who created it. That's not exactly true.

First, let me preface what follows by saying that I am Catholic. While knowledgeable about Catholic thought, I do not claim to be a true expert. Additionally, my general view is that religion should stay out of government. But I also think it's impossible to have a government completely devoid of some religious influence.

With that said, I winced when I heard the Pope came out with a new document that addressed economics. I really wish the church would leave economics to the economists. But since they put out this statement, it deserves some attention. I should also add that I have not read the entire document. It's long. Nearly 28,000 words. I have read a great deal of it, however, and most of the specifically relevant sections.

Let me begin with my basis for the view that religion should leave governing to the politicians. It comes from one of my favorite biblical anecdotes, Matthew 22:15-22. Here, Jesus responds to the Pharisees trying to trick him by presenting a question that seemingly has no good answer. They think he'll either have to criticize paying taxes to Rome or say it's okay for Israel/God to be subservient to Rome.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?"

But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, "Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax." And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"

They said to Him, "Caesar's."

Then He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."

And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.

He didn't fall for it. I think a few important lessons should be learned from this story. First, leave religion to priests and government to politicians. Second, pay your taxes, even if you don't like it, because it's only money. Third, religious leaders have more important things to worry about than economics. As a result, I think the Church needs to be very careful in telling governments what to do. And I think it agrees. From the new document:

The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim "to interfere in any way in the politics of States."

Unfortunately, the document doesn't always live up to that standard. But let's assume it means to.

Next, if Jesus were walking the earth today in the physical form, and forced to pick his favorite economic philosophy, what would it be? You might think it's socialism. After all, wouldn't he want everyone to be equal? Not exactly. Socialism forces equality. I don't think he would want the government forcing morality. Just ask Pope John Paul II who, along with Reagan and Thatcher, fought to end the collectivist societies in Eastern Europe.

In fact, I think Christ would be a libertarian. I think he would want people to make their own choices about morality and religion. Without the freedom to make choices for oneself, two problems occur. First, you never have the opportunity to choose to act in the way Christianity demands, as you are forced to do so. Second, your actions lack religious meaning, because a choice has never been thoughtfully considered. A world in which people are coerced into Christian values is not a truly Christian world. He would surely prefer one where everyone chooses to act in a Christian manner, no matter what the government thought about it. You cannot allow the opportunity to act virtuously without also allowing the opportunity to act sinfully.

The Church agrees. From the document:

(Pope) Paul VI had a keen sense of the importance of economic structures and institutions, but he had an equally clear sense of their nature as instruments of human freedom. Only when it is free can development be integrally human; only in a climate of responsible freedom can it grow in a satisfactory manner.

I actually really love the notion of "Charity in Truth." By that phrase, the Pope means something like, by loving one another (God's charitable truth), we'll all be a lot better off. I think that's right. Individuals, and even corporations, should be charitable. But that's a lot different from saying that government needs to vastly redistribute wealth or crush profit-seeking business.

Let's think about truth and charity in the practical sense. I actually believe ignoring truth -- in the non-religious sense -- is one of the major reasons we got into this economic mess. Truth was being ignored by the entire spectrum of the market. Lenders were ignoring truth by giving people mortgages that couldn't afford them; borrowers were ignoring truth by taking those mortgages that they couldn't afford; investors were ignoring truth by not acting prudently; banks were ignoring truth by thinking they could hold risky assets without enough capital to back them up.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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