Thursday, April 14, 2005

Capitalism and the Church: A liberal misconception?

A column by William Rees-Mogg in Monday's (London) Times, available online, caught my attention. Rees-Mogg, former Times editor and altogether cranky aristocrat (or is it aristocratic crank?), argues that the only certainty in terms of the outcome of the upcoming papal conclave is that the next pope "will be a socialist". He continues: "Almost every cardinal and bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, and probably every bishop in the Anglican Church, is a socialist. They are socialists in the same sense as Tony Blair, or Gerhard Schroeder, or Jacques Chirac, or Bill Clinton. They are all socialists because they have never studied the liberal argument." Which is why the next pope, whomever he may be, should read Adam Smith. Which is to say, the next pope should learn to be a good liberal democratic capitalist.

Now, these statements barely dignify comment. Rees-Mogg is a fairly intelligent man, and his genealogy of liberalism, which is what his column becomes, is generally on the mark. So, too, is his general conclusion that "[f]ree economic competition is not a zero-sum game. Free competition creates complex mutual benefits, by what Adam Smith called 'the hidden hand'. Liberalism has changed the world because it works and socialism does not". I realize that many of my recent posts place me on the "liberal" side of things, for the most part, but I am enough of a capitalist to be what could be called a classical liberal, or an economic conservative in contemporary parlance. But Rees-Mogg is mistaken in setting such a simple divide between capitalism on one side and socialism on the other. Capitalist economies, after all, have all adopted various aspects of socialism, such as universal, publicly-funded health care, unemployment insurance, and social security -- so much so that it might be more accurate to call them mixed capitalist economies. And how, exactly, are Tony (economic stability and sustained growth) Blair and Bill (the era of big government is over) Clinton socialists?

That's another problem. What I mean to focus on here is Rees-Mogg's ridiculous suggestion that the next pope draw inspiration from hardcore capitalists from Smith to Hayek. To begin with, Pope John Paul II nobly stressed economic progressivism, especially in the developing world, not the virtues of capitalism. Rees-Mogg mentions Locke, but he should know that the liberal project of which Locke was very much a founder was decidedly anti-religious -- Machiavelli's new modes and orders, the foundations of modernity (and hence Lockean liberalism), involved the rejection of subservience to some imaginary God/gods and the liberation/deification of Man. For the next pope to embrace capitalism and the liberal project of which it is an essential part would be to renounce his very purpose and place in the world, not to mention the very Church he leads, the very Church that was the object of liberal scorn in the first place. Rees-Mogg seems to want the papacy to be a bully pulpit of liberalism, to provide some sort of moral backing for capitalism. Forget the inherent, God-given dignity of all human beings. Forget the "culture of life". Forget a life lived according to the teachings of Jesus (who was not, alas, a good capitalist). It's all about the benevolent free market. So why not just give the job to Alan Greenspan? Surely the Vatican Curia -- or perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- must have a solid theological argument for where interest rates should be in relation to the current rate of inflation?

The Church does not exist for the sake of liberalism and capitalism. It is not a giant religious mouthpiece for the cult of the free market. I do not always agree with the positions that the Church takes on a variety of social and economic issues, but, even as a non-Catholic, I see the Church as a powerful bulwark against the worst excesses of modernity. Yes, there are problems with the Church's positions on homosexuality, abortion, and contraception, as well as on women's issues generally, and there are problems with the male-only celibate priesthood and even with the Church's so-called "socialism" in the developing world. I would like to see some serious reform in these areas -- though a non-Catholic, I recognize that the Church is powerful beyond itself and is therefore of concern to non-Catholics -- but I do not want the Church to become, say, a United Nations with fancy costumes and archaic speech. I want it to be what it is, which is a strong counterbalance to the all-too-powerful forces of modernity -- liberalism, capitalism, materialism, technology, etc. -- that already govern our lives. And this applies to the Roman Catholic Church as well as to other religious institutions, to Christianity and to other religions. Simply put, I am a secularist, but I do not object to the presence of organized religion or other forms of spirituality within the context and parameters of liberal democracy.

In the end, Rees-Mogg will not get what he wants (not that he could possibly mean it seriously). The next pope will be very much like Pope John Paul II: a social and doctrinal conservative, an economic progressive, a spokesman for traditional values generally, and a force for hope in the developing world. After all, the left-right divisions that define our political discourse do not apply here. There won't be liberal and conservative camps in the conclave. There will be differences -- centralization vs. decentralization, Italy/Europe vs. the developing world, liturgical/doctrinal reform vs. traditionalism, free inquiry and open debate vs. authoritarianism, etc. -- but it is a liberal misconception to think that the Church will ever embrace Adam Smith and accelerate full-steam into the delights of the free market. That's not what it's about, nor what it should be about. Period.

In my next post, or at least before the conclave starts next Monday, I'll pick my favourite from among the papabili and also give my prediction as to who the next pope will be and what name he'll take. Not that my opinion/prediction matters, but it seems to be the thing to do, and, as I've mentioned, I'm endlessly fascinated by it all.

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