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Catholic voices against runaway capitalism

Michael Walker |  19 February 2017


The presidency of Donald Trump should bring a renewed focus on the dangers of unbridled capitalism. The Catholic Church has a rich trove of teachings on the subject that have been missing in action for the past 30 years and need to be rediscovered, fast.

Finance Catholique by Antoine Cuny de la VerryèrePope John Paul II had no time for Communism, which is unsurprising since he had to live under it before becoming pope. He was firmly determined that theologians not naively enable or endorse Communist politics, which was made clear in a 1984 Vatican directive penned by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (today Pope Emeritus Benedict) forbidding elements of allegedly Communist-influenced Liberation Theology.

In the same year President Reagan, who was carried to office with the support of the religious Right, established diplomatic relations with the Vatican for the first time ever. An alliance between the Church hierarchy and right-wing US politics was established which had no reason to outlive the Cold War but somehow remained firmly in place for three decades.

The Church's tacit support for the Republican agenda is likely to vanish under Trump with the US bishops having already challenged him on migration and refugees. That should not be the only point of difference.

What's been forgotten or at least soft-pedalled in those 30 years is that John Paul II's writings, like those of his predecessors and successors, are just as critical of unbridled capitalism as they are of socialism. The Church has warned us for well over 100 years to steer a path between the excesses of both.


"People spend a similar amount of time at work as they do with their families yet the level of engagement with work and business-related moral questions in the English-speaking church is woeful."


Now is the time for a well-articulated Christian challenge to the problems of capitalism which seem likely to get worse before they get better. The United States is already more unequal today than it ever has been in history, even worse than it was in the days of the robber barons.

Where is the voice of the local churches on widening wealth inequality fuelled by stagnant wage growth and on the privatisation of public services? Or on financialisation of the economy, which fuels both of those trends? Or on tax justice?

This silence is unique to the English-speaking world. In other countries, Catholics are on the front foot about the problems of capitalism and stand with the marginalised, particularly in Pope Francis's native Latin America. In his book Finance Catholique Frenchman Antoine Cuny de la Verryère proposes the following list of 11 'financial sins'. Have you heard a sermon about any of them?

  1. Price volatility due to speculation
  2. Wage inequality
  3. Excessive use of leverage
  4. Commodification of workers
  5. Short-termism
  6. Losing sight of non-economic values such as scarcity and productivity
  7. Failure to share the profits from an enterprise
  8. Anonymity and disempowerment of investors
  9. Tax havens and tax avoidance generally
  10. Adverse effects on the environment
  11. Lack of transparency

People spend a similar amount of time at work as they do with their families yet the level of engagement with work and business-related moral questions in the English-speaking church is woeful. We have a panoply of conferences, theology courses and institutes about Church teaching on marriage and family. I struggle to recall even one about Church teaching on the dignity and rights of workers.

Exacerbating the problem, Catholic institutions that are uncritical of or even boosters of capitalism tend to attract funding from wealthy donors and thus have the means to fill the vacuum. Consider the Michigan-based Acton Institute which propagates a syncretic blend of Christianity and free-market liberalism and is funded by oil company Exxon and the billionaire Koch brothers among others. They frequently intervene in public debates, muddying the waters on Catholic Church teaching such as the right of workers to form unions. Their view ends up carrying the day simply by filling the void left open by the official Church.

The Republicans' electoral alliance with the Church may already be doomed by their overreach on immigration. That the Church has drawn a line on this issue is praiseworthy but it is at least as urgent to reassert the Catholic position on the human cost of our economic system.


Michael WalkerMichael Walker is a union official and PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. He tweets at @labouratmargins


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Submitted comments

Thank you for a succinct summary of the Church's position re economic issues.

Fred Ireland 21 February 2017

I am very happy to say I have never heard a homily on any of those topics. They would be beyond the personal competency of most priests and those who might be literate enough in those specialist areas would not be foolish enough to think that those topics fit the requirements of a homily. I have heard lectures on many of those topics and from a Catholic point of view. And I have read many essays on those topics either in books or in journals. It seems to me that is the right context for a discussion of such complex issues upon which Catholics, using the Gospel, could come to quite different conclusions.

Dr J Fleming 21 February 2017

I have just returned from an inspirational international congress of the "Economy of Communion" network including an audience with 1100 entrepreneurs, professionals , students and academics of this network with Pope Francis at the Vatican to mark 25 years of this "third way approach" to doing business which provides an altenative approach to capitalism while respecting the market.. The approach began with the founder of the Focolare Movement Chiara Lubich in Brazil in 1991 encouraging for profit businesses, sharing their profits and living a culture of giving and communion to be established as a response to the poor with the stark inequalities she observed in that society. The network has broadened into an inclusive international network beyond the Catholic Church. Pope Francis in his thought provoking message on the economy invited us to rethink the purpose of money, the purpose of helping economic victims when we should prevent more victims in the first place and how our relationships with each other should be a gift. He encourage us to continue in this vein. Rethinking the role of money, the role of technology and human dignity lie at the heart of why capitalism as of now is failing humanity

Lorraine Lipson 21 February 2017

Thanks to Michael Walker for his very thoughtful article It is understandable that Pope John Paul 2 hated the regime in Poland. The real issue was that it was Stalinist and repressive rather than socialist For Christians who criticise socialism as being un-Christian, they need to remember that the early Christians lived a more socialist way of life than a capitalist one. It is interesting to refer to Acts in the New Testament (Acts 2: 44-45), which reads: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common.And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need" Some believe that Louis Blanc, the French socialist who coined the saying, "from each according to their ability to each according to their need" actually developed it from these verses. There is a further reference to the early Christians living a socialist way of life in Acts 4: 32 - 37: The Catholic Church now has a pope who obviously is more sympathetic to Liberation Theology. Pope Francis is a much greater advocate for social justice and human rights than most popes in living memory. It is important to have a pope like this in the neoliberal phase of capitalism when rapacious greed is causing much human suffering and environmental destruction.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 21 February 2017

I completely agree with Michael's comments . Like Fred Ireland, I have never heard a homily on this worrying issue. It is well neigh time that the Church in Australia spoke out forcefully against rampant capitalism which is rapidly destroying our fragile planet . I used to teach my students the following principle in my senior Religious Studies classes ; when they face their Creator ,He will not have a big book listing their 'sins' , rather God will ask them "how well did you take care of my creation that was entrusted to you?" The Chinese have a concept called " the Mandate of Heaven" which governed the conduct of their dynastic rulers . Maybe we need to develop such a concept for our leaders.

Gavin 21 February 2017

It is written “that the love of money is the root of evil”. This has never been more prescient, it is the evil that is infecting today’s society. Christ blessed the widow’s mite not the donation of the rich. And he drove the money lenders out of the temple. It is this legacy that Pope Francis endorses. It places the church on the side of the dispossessed. Where it used to be.

Reg Wilding 21 February 2017

Thanks for a very clear article, Michael! Your challenge to the church is very timely. Dr. Fleming's comments above simply highlight the problem you are exposing - oh, it is all too complex, the gospel is not on the side of the poor, the gospel has no implications for the economy, wider society etc ... I wonder if this is wilful moral blindness? Wherever it comes from, this ideological approach presents a serious obstacle to the church's social teaching around the priority of the common good.

Gaven McDavey 21 February 2017

Thank you Michael for your thoughtful article. My first response is why did Cardinal Pell attend an event with Rupert Murdoch here in Melbourne if not to support a neo-liberal capitalist agenda? We are living through a tetonic civilisation change that will leave millions of good people without meaningful work. When will it become part of an honest conversation that there are NOT enough jobs for people to apply for in this transition from industry to techology? A living wage for all has been mooted as a solution ... but look at what people on benefits and pensions are subjected to from Centrelink ... and what unbridled wealth is not subjected to by government and responsible business. Unfortunately, there are some Christian institutions that do not engage in modelling good financial practices for their staff ... I know people who have had to get the Unions involved to get justice that should have been freely offered after injustices had occurred in their workplaces. Walking the talk is the first step ... surely!

Mary Tehan 21 February 2017

Michael. You refer to the "allegedly communist -influenced Liberation Theology". There was nothing merely alleged about it. The great militarily involved Jesuit pro-liberation proponents, the Cardinale brothers, along with their AK47 armed band of brigands, replaced the crucifix at Pope John Paul's outdoor Mass during his visit to Nicaragua by the Hammer and Sickle under the force of arms - pretty good indication that there might have been a bit of communism at work!

john frawley 21 February 2017

Well said Dr Fleming. Thank goodness the exposition of God's word recorded in the scriptures and not leftist or conservative politics is the intent of homiletics.

john frawley 21 February 2017

No disrespect Michael but an example of the pot calling the kettle black no doubt: This is from Time Magazine Feb 26 1965: "Bankers' best guesses about the Vatican's wealth put it at $10 billion to $15 billion. Of this wealth, Italian stockholdings alone run to $1.6 billion, 15% of the value of listed shares on the Italian market. The Vatican has big investments in banking, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction, real estate. Dividends help pay for Vatican expenses and charities such as assisting 1,500,000 children and providing some measure of food and clothing to 7,000,000 needy Italians. Unlike ordinary stockholders, the Vatican pays no taxes on this income." Based on a normal inflation rate of 2% pa, the Vatican should now be worth $20 to $30 billion. Are they really in any position to point the finger at the excesses of Capitalism?

francis Armstrong 21 February 2017

Even within the Anglosphere there is an interesting bifurcation between the USA and just about everyone else. The former favour "freedom" above all else whereas everyone else recognizes freedom has to be balanced with "fairness". The gun laws and attitudes to personal firearms are an instance of this divergence.

Bill Venables 21 February 2017

The most ardent supporter of catholic social teaching at present in Australia is Race Matthews, who happens to be a non catholic. His book, Of Labour and Liberty, is soon to be released. In my youth I was a member of the Young Christian Worker Movement {YCW} where these teachings were on the agenda. Given the present discussion on the effects of robotism and the exploitation of People working in rural industries and some fast food companies, with people under employed and unemployed I believe it is time now for a Christian Worker Movement to be formed. The basis of the movement would be catholic social teaching.

Kevin Vaughan 21 February 2017

A response to the article reads: “I used to teach my students the following principle in my senior Religious Studies classes ; when they face their Creator, He will not have a big book listing their 'sins' , rather God will ask them "how well did you take care of my creation that was entrusted to you?" Can’t he do both? What’s with this infringing of his sovereignty? Is there canonical evidence for this point of view? One would think the concept of Mercy would require the soul in the dock to realise how big its book of sins is. Why is there a belief in the Church that the more saintly a person is, the more aware of his or her sinfulness (or deviation from the standard that is God) that person will be?

Roy Chen Yee 21 February 2017

Here's a sobering reflection on your plaint, Michael. Between 1985-92 (long before the election of Pope Benedict) I was employed as Education Officer (Peace, Justice & Development) by the Brisbane Catholic Education Office. At the time Queensland was reeling under the premiership of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, whose policies, as if in anticipation of the by now well-entrenched neoliberal ideological onslaught, synchronised a conservative personal morality order with a rampant economic liberal agenda. Our Archdiocesan Justice & Peace Commission, under the guidance of our Spiritual Director, Fr Morgan Howe, asked me to develop a proposal nominating six topics to be the focus of a diocesan-wide series of symposiums on Catholic Social Teaching. I nominated, with their assistance and approval, the following topics: Wage inequality Enterprise bargaining Contractual employment Profit-sharing Tax avoidance Abuse of the environment. A few weeks later, the Executive Director of the Catholic Education Office, sent me a signed memorandum, which I still have in my possession, advising me that "current exigencies prohibit developing such a project further at the present time" and indicating that "the advice of the Archbishop (had) been sought in this regard. I wish you well in filling the gaps in this scandalously one-sided discourse.

Dr Michael Furtado 21 February 2017

"Now is the time for a well-articulated Christian challenge to the problems of capitalism ..." AGREED! Has the Church been silent? NO! But we may not have been listening. E.g. Pope Benedict's many statements on the subject including Caritas in Veritae (2009) and Peace message (Jan 2013). To quote: "Building the good of peace through a new model of development and economics." " ... we need people, groups and institutions which will promote life by fostering human creativity, in order to draw from the crisis itself an opportunity for discernment and for a new economic model. The predominant model of recent decades called for seeking maximum profit and consumption, on the basis of an individualistic and selfish mindset, aimed at considering individuals solely in terms of their ability to meet the demands of competitiveness." "In economic activity, peacemakers are those who establish bonds of fairness and reciprocity with their colleagues, workers, clients and consumers. They engage in economic activity for the sake of the common good and they experience this commitment as something transcending their self-interest, for the benefit of present and future generations. Thus they work not only for themselves, but also to ensure for others a future and a dignified employment."

Mike Fordyce 21 February 2017

Much of what I have heard from the church on this issue resembles that of charity and welfare as practised by the privileged. Both are outmoded concepts that are self serving as excuses for those lucky enough to have the wealth to keep a lions share while distributing barely liveable amounts to victims of society. Social Democratic movements were heading along the road of the early Christians of sharing as needed. When we are moving into an age of mammoth oversupply of goods combined with a diminution of work we desperately need to refocus our attitudes. Capitalism has achieved much, but it would have self destructed several times over but for the intercession of governments. The GFC was just the latest example. The economy needs to serve the people, all the people. All of the early Labour Prime Ministers were of a strong religious background, mainly Catholic. It was these Christian values which drove the Social Democratic ideals of pensions, health care, education and services for all. Let us abolish the idea of welfare and charity and instead look for an inclusive society where everyone has a right to a reasonable standard of living. WE can afford it.

Bruce 21 February 2017

I agree wholeheartedly with Michael. Is there some way that Catholics of like mind can organize on an international basis?

Calvin Johansson 23 February 2017

Though I agree mostly here's a story of hope and juxtaposition. I went in may to the seemingly conservative Latin mass in Annerley with friends in the great of St Joseph. The homily thoughtfully exhorted the rights and dignity of workers. AND reminded us of the important great catholic documents of the popes. And referred to the catholic cooperative and distributivist movements. (or was that just my mind?) I was pleasantly surprised.

Margaret Pestorius 24 February 2017

Excellent article the final words say it all "it is at least as urgent to reassert the Catholic position on the human cost of our economic system ",in other words care for human beings not money

Nic Hastings-James 18 May 2017

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