For the month of April, Pope Francis has asked Catholics to pray “For those who have responsibility in economic matters, that economists may have the courage to reject any economy of exclusion and know how to open new paths.”
The topic perked my ears, probably since my degree is in economics. So many questions popped up. Is the Pope trying to advocate for Socialism, as many outraged American Catholics seem to believe? How and why should our faith inform our economic philosophies? Is there such a thing as “Catholic” economics?
Over a century ago, a different pope grappled with economics. Pope Leo XIII released his encyclical Rerum Novarum on May 15, 1891. At that time, the world was adjusting to the changes of the industrial revolution, and many world leaders were taking a serious look at Karl Marx’s and Friedrick Engels’s The Communist Manifesto. The encyclical was a clear rejection of socialism on several grounds:
It states, “ Therefore, to deny private ownership of property is to steal from a man the fruits of his own labor.” And later, “ Therefore, the socialist idea that the State can interfere in the internal relations of the family is both wrong and unjust…” Concluding, “ It is plain, then, that the socialist plan is destructive and unnatural.”
So, no, the Catholic Church does not advocate socialism.
However, the Catholic Church also does not advocate “unfettered capitalism,” warning against the tendency for wealth to concentrate in too few hands. In response to the industrial revolution, Rerum Novarum notes that, “ a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” The encyclical insists that, “ some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”
But if the Church rejects Socialism and warns against unfettered Capitalism, what does Pope Francis want us to pray for?
Perhaps history can guide us. Back in the late 19th century, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc popularized what’s known as “Distributism.” Many consider it a third economic system, an alternative to capitalism and socialism. In reality, it’s more of an economic philosophy.
At Distributism’s root is the principle of subsidiarity, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” In other words, the rights of small communities (families, neighborhoods) should not be violated by intervention from larger communities (state or federal government).
The word Distributism may sound like a reference to re-distribution of wealth, but it is actual referencing the movement’s focus on a wide distribution of the means of capital—or as I like to look at it, a distribution of the profit incentive. Rather than communism (the concentration of wealth, power, and capital in the hands of the state) or capitalism (the concentration of wealth, power, and capital in the hands of oligarchs), Distributism advocates for a decentralized economy with more people owning their own property, tools, and intellectual capital.
As a concrete example, let’s look at the dairy industry. “Three acres and a cow” was once a popular Distributist slogan. The slogan hits close to home; I grew up on a dairy farm. The dairy industry is currently in dire straits with many small farmers unable to survive rock-bottom prices. The global economy, competition from large farms, and changing demand all play a role. A college friend of mine has taken a very Distributist approach to this hardship by creating a way for her family’s dairy farm to have a more direct relationship with its consumers. Folks can now better support my friend and her family by buying Garden Valley Farmstead’s exclusive mild cheddar cheese.
While not necessarily known as Distributism, this shift towards localism has been gaining traction in recent years. Rather than “three acres and a cow,” modern Distributism looks more like famer’s markets, cooperatives, Uber, Airbnb, Etsy, more independent contractors...and of course I have to mention craft beer! Ultimately the movement has to happen at a grassroots level since in fact Distributism is more of a philosophy than an economic system.
However, “those who have responsibility in economic matters” (ie: elected officials) could do more to ease the regulatory burden on small businesses, stop choosing winners and losers through biased incentives, and stop catering to big businesses and special interests. Robin Williams once said “Politicians should wear sponsor jackets like NASCAR drivers. Then we’d know who owns them.” Indeed, campaign reform may be the single biggest way to move towards the decentralization required for Distributism.
It’s hard to say what exactly Pope Francis had in mind with April’s prayer intention. Certainly he sees these issues from a global scale. As for me, I’ll be praying for a shift towards an economic vision built on the inherent dignity of families: Distributism.
…and then I’ll go out and support a local business!