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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Welcome To The Real

Catholics often argue over economic systems - which is best for Catholic life?

  • Should we live in community, sharing all things as described in Acts? That is, should we embrace a theistic communism?
  • Should we emphasize private property, as Peter did to Ananias and Sapphira and embrace Adam Smith's capitalism?
  • Should we live as we fantasize the medieval Europeans did, with small farms and guilds, and become Chestertonian distributists? 
  • Should we be Locke's democratic republic or Aquinas' gentle monarchy?

Everyone brings forward their favorite encyclicals to debate these questions.
What a waste of time!

The very conversation misses the whole point of what it means to be Catholic. Systems are human-made tools. Tools are not persons, tools are not moral agents. Tools are not Catholic or non-Catholic. They just are.

Persons are moral agents, so persons are Catholic or not Catholic. 
The difference between "tool" and "person" is infinite. 

There is no Catholic hammer, no papist nail. Saws do not make professions of faith. 
There is no difference between an economic system and a hammer - both are tools.
Thus, there is no Catholic monetary system, no Catholic system of governance.

Does my monetary system or my system of governance have to have a preferential option for the poor, does my system have to promote a sense of solidarity in order for me to endorse it as a Catholic?


*I* have to have those things and do those things. So do you. But the system doesn't.
You and I are morally responsible for these things because you and I are persons.
The system is not morally responsible for these things because the system is a rock, a tool, a saw, a hammer. It is a thing. Things do not bear moral responsibility, only persons do.
The system is not a person.

Now, the Church has said that any system which does not recognize subsidiarity and private property, is doomed to failure. Subsidiarity is the source of personal responsibility, and private property is the source of charity - I can't give away something I don't own, I can't steward something that isn't in some sense my responsibility. Insofar as the system doesn't recognize persons and moral responsibility, it will fail. That pretty much sums up what the Church has to say about systems.

Ah, but systems are made up of communities of people, and does not the community bear moral  responsibility?

No, it does not.

The grand economic system is not morally responsible or morally irresponsible, any more than a furnace is morally responsible or irresponsible when it makes steel or burns Jews. Both the economic system and the furnace are tools, nothing more. 

Now, personally, I have a lot of moral duties, but do systems have moral duties?
If they do, how do they manage that?
How would it go to confession?
What priest has the power to absolve capitalism or communism for its sins?
So, no, economic systems do not have to recognize moral duties because they cannot recognize moral duties. They are not capable.

It's like demanding that fire only burn wood and never Jews - wouldn't it be nice if we could make such demands? But we can't because fire is not a person. It is a tool. It does not take note of our moral demands.

Even human communities are tools, not moral agents.
Pope Pius XII specifically said there is no such thing as collective guilt in reference to German guilt for the Holocaust. The Second Vatican Council has said the same thing in reference to Jewish guilt for the crucifixion. There is no such thing as collective guilt.

That means the community cannot bear collective guilt when moral correct actions are ignored or even actively mocked. Only individuals can bear such responsibility. 

I may personally have a lot of moral obligations to various persons, but the system I advocate or attack cannot be advocated or attacked on the basis of the moral responsibilities it bears because systems do not bear moral responsibilities. Neither do communities. Only individuals bear these responsibilities.

I cannot hold a corporation morally responsible for it's actions any more than I can hold all Germans responsible for the Holocaust or all Jews responsible for the crucifixion - in every case, I would be assuming corporate guilt. In every case, I would be violating Catholic teaching.

According to Catholic teaching, the only corporate guilt that exists is original sin.
Nothing else qualifies.
So governments, corporations and the systems which run them, while run by people, cannot be held morally responsible for anything. Only the individual people running them can be.

How can this be?

The Only Catholic Economy
Only one truly Catholic economic system exists.

It is the economy of grace, the sacramental economy.

It is a Catholic economic system because it deals with grace, which is participation in eternity.

Every other economic system is not Catholic because it deals with mere time, that is, it deals with money. Contrary to popular belief, money is not a marker for land, goods or other property. Money is a marker for time. 

Time is the only thing everyone has access to, everyone owns. Everyone is equal in part because no one knows how much time anyone has. All we know is the amount of time each person has only decreases, never increases, so it becomes more and more valuable. That's why money works - we each trade time to gain things we would like but wouldn't otherwise be able to get because we don't have enough time.

When I spend my time learning a trade (and notice, it's called a "trade"), I can then trade the time I spent learning that skill for time I would rather not spend learning some other skill. Money allows me to trade my time for someone else's time. I might assist someone who has a talent for creating things by giving him some of my time (money) and asking for a portion of his time (money) as a return on my investment. Whether I'm a guild member or a shareholder, I've invested my time or time equivalents. Time eats away at money just as it eats away at me. Given inflation, money decomposes just like corpses. Jesus laughed at the man who stored up goods, because money is a marker for time, but it isn't time itself. Money can buy everything but time and grace.

Distributism claims land is the basis of wealth, which is just stupid. 
Capitalism claims capital is the basis of wealth, which is equally stupid.
Communism claims community is the basis of wealth, which is absurd.
Timeless grace is the basis of wealth.

That's why there can be no overlap between the Catholic economic system and other economic systems - Catholics deal in infinite, eternal grace, all other systems deal in finite, limited time. The sacramental economy is the only Catholic economy. There is no other. 

The Economy Gives Birth
The sacramental economy gives birth to the only morally responsible community: the Catholic Church.
It is a morally responsible community not because it is primarily a community, but because it is primarily a person - the Bride of Christ. Grace, the breath of the Holy Spirit, makes Her a Person.

The Church is a Person first and primarily, a community second and consequentially. Because the Church is a Person, the Church can apologize, the Church can be reformed, the Church can bear moral responsibility.

If the Church were merely a community, it could do none of those things. When a Catholic parish calls itself primarily a Catholic community, that parish is, whether it realizes it or not, trying to absolve itself of moral responsibility. It is attempting to distance itself from the Person of the Church and the social doctrines of the Church.

Good luck with that.

Individual people have a LOT of obligations, but if we keep confusing systems with people, how are we going to be any different than the communists or corporatists or whatever-ists that we don't like? 

Corporatists think business corporations are real people. They are not.
Corporations are artificial persons, not real persons.
Corporations cannot be baptized, confirmed, anointed, married or given Eucharist.
They cannot be absolved, saved or damned.
They are not persons.

Communists think the same thing of communities.

The Church's social doctrine is not meant for communities or for systems.
The Church's social doctrine is meant for individuals: me and you. 

If we think it is meant for systems, we attribute to communities and systems something the Church has always denied. We attribute to them personhood. Personhood is held only by God, angels and men. IBM, Apple, McDonalds, Walmart, Google, Facebook: these do not qualify. 

The line between good and evil runs not through the community, but through every individual human heart. Only individual persons are morally culpable for actions. Only individual persons can be absolved for their sins or glorified for their correct responses to grace.

A calculating machine can be made up of gears and wheels, 
A calculating machine can be made up of silicon wafers and electronic gates.
A calculating machine can be made up of a series of people who each perform a step in the calculation.

From a moral perspective, there is no difference between these three things because each is a system, and a system is not a person.

Sure, the third system is composed of persons and the first two aren't, but that doesn't change the operation of the system. Systems are not persons, they are not morally culpable.

Systems are not Catholic or non-Catholic - they just are.

A community is Catholic only insofar as the individuals in the community:
(a) participate in the life of grace so that they are
(b) joined to the body of Christ who is a person.

But the Church is the only community which is a person, the only community that can carry grace or guilt. No other community can do this because no other community is a person.

Many people would like you to be confused on this point. They would prefer you to think that many different kinds of communities and systems are persons. It makes the Church seem common. Don't be fooled.

If anyone would like to argue about the merits of individual economic systems, feel free.
Just don't call any of them Catholic, because none of them (except the sacraments) are.

Insofar as a distributist or communist or libertarian or capitalist or anything-ist tells you otherwise, they have a weak grasp of reality.


Andrew said...

A very worthwhile and interesting post. I'd agree that there is not a "one size fits all" Catholic social system. However, there certainly are social systems which are fundamentally antoganistic to the Faith. As you point out, theistic communism was practiced in the early Church and continues in the monastic life. ATHEISTIC communism, just like (atheistic capitalism or atheistic distributis or atheistic anything else) would be opposed to the good of men.

Systems of economics and governance don't exist independent of persons. A system is at the very least the idea of a person. As that person shares the idea with others and attempts to implement it, the idea is expressed in word and action. Our thoughts, words, and actions are either oriented towards God or away from Him.

So "value neutral" systems don't exist independent of the human will.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

There's a debate in philosophy over whether every action is a moral action.

Some argue that every action IS a moral action - even your choice of breakfast cereal contains moral elements.

Others say that not every action is a moral action. Your choice of breakfast cereal has no moral implications.

Whether or not the undertaking of one economic system vs. another is a moral action is arguably an open question.

Andrew said...

The existence of debate on a topic doesn't mean there is reasonable room for debate. There's debate on whether or not Benedict XVI is the succssor of St. Peter. He is. Regardless of the existence of debate.

From Caritas in veritate:

"37. The Church's social doctrine has always maintained that justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity, because this is always concerned with man and his needs. Locating resources, financing, production, consumption and all the other phases in the economic cycle inevitably have moral implications. Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence."

It's also incorrect to claim that corporate entities never have duties. As Dignitatis Humanae says:

"Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."

There are individual and societal duties toward the true religion and the Church. Of course, society has no will of it's own, but men in cooperation with one another have special duties beyond what belong to each as an individual person.

I'm also interested if you could clarify/expand upon your comments regarding collective guilt.

From the Catechism:

1868 Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:

- by participating directly and voluntarily in them;

- by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;

- by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;

- by protecting evil-doers.

So take your example of the Germans and the holocaust. Germans don't bear responsibility for the holocaust simply by being Germans. However, to the extent that they, or anyone else did do the items mentioned, they do bear responsibility.

In addition, even if a person does not bear personal responsibility for a sin committed by someone else, that doesn't mean they don't suffer consequences for the sin. Every German, even those who had no part in the holocaust in anyway, have suffered consequences because of it. Likewise, if my dad is an abusive drunk, that will effect me, and likely my children and grandchildren, even if I did nothing to contribute to his sins. The multi-generational consequences of sin are evident throughout Scripture.

Pax Christi

Mater et Magistra said...

You might want to head over to the "Can Catholics Be Libertarians?" post at Catholic Vote and shed some light over there.

(But first correct your 3rd person neuter possessive pronoun on your own post: "responsible for its actions" --no apostrophe in "its" unless it's a contraction.)

Steve Kellmeyer said...

"Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence."

Sure it does.
No one denies that.
But only persons make economic decisions - systems don't.

So did you have a reason to quote that CV passage? Because I sure can't see what it might be.

If you want the commentary on collective guilt expanded, I suggest you read the link and use the information presented there to research it yourself.

The rest is refuting arguments I didn't make. I see no point in addressing strawmen.

As for Catholic Vote's libertarian argument, since I'm not a libertarian, I'm not particularly interested. Catholics who favor the system probably would be.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Oh, and as far as your Dignitatis Humanae quote goes, if you really want to emphasize that, it proves far too much.

"Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."

Certainly Judaism is a culture and a society, and certainly it had a moral duty toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. It failed in that duty.

So, according to your interpretation, the Jews really are responsible for Christ's death. Except that VCII apparently contradicted it's own document to claim that Jewish society did NOT actually have a moral duty - no collective guilt.

Same goes for the Holocaust - Pope Pius XII apparently taught against the Faith when he said Germans could not be held collectively responsible.

So, if you want to hold that economic systems have moral duties or that societies in general have moral duties, then VCII contradicted a Pope and itself.

Andrew said...

Steve, the point of quoting Caritas in Veritate was to refute the 2nd position you put foward in your example debate: that what breakfast cereal you eat is not a moral choice. According to Caritas in Veritate it is. So, while there may be a debate on the point, the debate takes place outside of Catholic teaching.

So you're contradicting yourself. On one hand you say that no one denies that every economic decision has a moral consequence. On the other hand you say that some assert that what breakfast cereal you eat (an economic decision) has no moral implications.

I've never asserted that all Jews are personally responsible for the Crucifixion, in any manner different than the responsibility all men share by our sin.

It's actually quite easy to shoot down anyone who does say that all Jews bear personal guilt for the death of Christ. Mary was a Jew. Mary was sinless. There fore all Jews don't bear guilt for the death of Christ.

Of course the Jews and Romans and whoever else was involved in actually killing Christ, DO bear a personal responsibility for their own actions, just like everyone else does.

I did follow your link regarding Pius XII. From what I could tell it was commentary by someone else not original comments by Pope PIus XII himself. It would be more useful seeing what he actually said.

Where did a Pope say that societies have duties?


Andrew said...


Last sentence above should read:

Where did a Pope say that societies do not have duties?

The comparison of an economic system to a hammer falls a bit flat. Ideas are not physical objects. A system is the exercise of a human will.


Andrew said...

If you are leaping from:

A. Not every German who has ever existed is personally responsible for the holocaust.


B. Societies don't have duties.

I don't think B logically follows from A.

Steve Kellmeyer said...


I made the statement about breakfast cereals because during our conversation I recalled someone who actually DID dispute the idea that "every economic decision is a moral decision."

He was a philosphy professor at Franciscan University - he pointed out that the idea of what constituted a moral act was actually a disputed question. He fell on the side that said the decision to eat one breakfast cereal over another is NOT a moral decision.

So I was wrong to say no one disputes that - actually, that is disputed.

As for social duties, here's the problem:

CCC 1869 "Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. "Structures of sin" are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a "social sin." "

Now, if something is a "social sin" only in an analogous sense, then it is not REALLY a sin. It only holds certain analogues to real sin.

If there is no such thing as a social sin, but only an analogy to one, then there can be no such thing as social duties, but only analogies to social duties.

Persons have duties.
Systems don't.
They have analogues to duties, but when we speak of "social duties" or "social justice" then we are only speaking in an analogous sense.

Andrew said...

Steve, I think we are at least largely in agreement, simply using terms in different ways.

Yes, "social duties" are carried out (or not) by persons.

Back to your example of the Jewish people failing in their duty towards Christ...I'd say yes and no.

Some failed. Other's didnt'. A number of Jews recognized Jesus as the Messiah and became Christians. Others didn't, either through ignorance or malice. Same thing with the holocaust. Some Germans participated. Some enabled it. Others opposed it, and a good many died in it.

I don't have the paragraph # handy, but as the CCC points out, every person has a responsiblity to contribute to the common good, each according to their station in life. So each of us has a personal responsibility to participate in the fulfillment of social duties.

Pax Christi