Wednesday, March 22, 2017

1. Is Distributism a Parody of Christianity?


A few days ago on FaceBook we came across a reposted article from Regina Magazine (“Inspiring.  Intelligent.  Catholic.”), an internet journal “interested in everything under the Catholic sun . . . [seeking] the Good, the Beautiful and the True” — surely a laudable goal, regardless of your religion or lack thereof.  The article was “The ABC’s of Catholic Economics” by either Beverly Stevens or William Schultz, possibly both — it wasn’t clear, and a visit to the website didn’t make it any clearer.
Rev. Heinrich Pesch, S.J.
Unfortunately, right off the bat the title of the article caused alarm bells to go off.  As the solidarist economist Dr. Franz Müller, a student of the great Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., the “redeemer” of solidarism, always reminded people, there is no such thing as “Catholic Economics” or any other science.  To insist that your science requires faith for its validity debauches science and degrades religion.
Reading the article, it turned out that the title was not the only difficulty.  Of the twenty-four entries in the ABC list (K and L were omitted for some reason), five (about 21%) were not relevant to the topic, eighteen (75%) had serious problems, and one (about 4%) we could agree with without reservation.  It became questionable whether what was being promoted was truly Catholic social doctrine.
Rather than simply declare it is a bad article, however, it seemed more useful (and fair) to go through the entire piece and explain what, specifically, we objected to.  In order to ensure strict fairness, we have quoted the entire article verbatim (all quotes are in boldface type) so that it is clear we did not distort, twist, or misquote anything.  The article starts with the statement,
Are Catholics supposed to be Socialists? Capitalists? Believe it or not, the Catholic Church has its own perspective on the “dismal science” of Economics — one that most Catholics have never heard of. It’s called “Distributism” and it’s all about common sense. Now, before your eyes glaze over, here’s how it works.
Hilaire Belloc
According to its developers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, “distributism” is a loose theory of socio-economics based on the natural law assumption that it is better to be an owner than not to own, with a preference for small, family owned farms and artisan businesses and enterprises.  When enterprises must be large, workers should own the company through equity shares, presumably that carry the vote and pay dividends.
Following the brief introduction, the article launches into the “ABCs”:
A is for Agrarianism, which is at the heart of Catholic economics. The idea that families and small towns or villages can solve most problems without interference from national governments is integral to all Catholic social doctrine. 
Commentary:
No.  Respect for the dignity of the human person under God and conformity to the natural law are integral to Catholic social doctrine.  The specific arrangement of the economy or society is a matter of complete indifference as long as these two requirements are met.
B is for Belloc, Hilaire, the co-creator, with G.K Chesterton, of the formal term for Catholic economics, Distributism. As a working term, Distributism was considered more descriptive than anything else, and the two were essentially unsatisfied with it. Lacking any suitable alternative, however, they spent the better part of two decades explaining its practical application, and updating its doctrines as new papal teachings were introduced. 
Commentary:
George Bernard Shaw
No.  Neither Chesterton nor Belloc was ever able to come up with a way to apply the principles of distributism, although Belloc came closest with his An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936).  Belloc’s proposal, however, was past savings-based, thus relying on government carrying out de facto redistribution by imposing legal disabilities on the rich in favor of the non-rich.  George Bernard Shaw cornered Chesterton on this very point in an early debate when Shaw demanded to know how distributism could be implemented.  Instead of admitting he didn’t have a program (which admission he made later in print . . . after Shaw kept after him on it), Chesterton avoided the question.  This gave Shaw all the leverage he needed to conclude that distributism was merely another form of Fabian socialism, like guild socialism or social credit, and to declare that Chesterton did not understand socialism.
C is for Chesterton, G.K., Belloc’s dear friend and one of the most brilliant English-language authors of all time.  Chesterton was a journalist, a poet, a novelist, and a fierce debater, challenging the enemies of Christianity wherever he found them; his most famous debates were against American atheist Clarence Darrow, Anglo-Irish socialist George Bernard Shaw, and English science fiction great Herbert George Wells. 
 Commentary:
Clarence Darrow
Qualified no.  Chesterton was a poor debater, a fact of which Shaw took full advantage.  Audiences came to watch the entertaining fireworks, often missing the very serious points both men were trying to make.  Chesterton only held his own because he refused to budge from his position, and could usually counter Shaw’s and others’ wit and repartee with his own.  In an informal debate in 1923 soon after Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism — which outraged Shaw — Shaw stormed out of the room because Chesterton refused to admit that becoming a Catholic was stupid, and he couldn’t get a rise out of Chesterton, who (at least publicly) took Shaw as a big joke and often played to the crowd for laughs.  Fierce debater?  Hardly.
D is for Day, Dorothy, the most famous American champion of Distributism. Day, a faithfully orthodox Catholic despite her reputation as a maverick, founded the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper to spread the ideals of blessed Franciscan poverty, the dignity of labor, and charity. 
 Commentary:
And the star of Bethlehem was red.
No.  Day’s understanding of Catholic social doctrine tended to slip into the “Neo Catholic” principle that all things, including the natural law, are subordinate to the need for social betterment.  The true Catholic principle is that all things, including social betterment, are subordinate to the natural law.
E is for Economics, Catholic. The Popes, seeing the need to address the dangers of modernism and its attendant pathologies liberalism and socialism, formalized the Church’s teachings on economics and the relations between workers and employers in a series of encyclicals beginning in 1891 and continuing through to the present day.
 Commentary:
No.  There is no such thing as “Catholic Economics,” any more than there is Catholic math, Catholic biology, or any other science.  There can be economics consistent with the principles of natural law, and thus with Catholic social doctrine, but a specifically “Catholic Economics”?  No.
F is for Family, the basic social unit of the Catholic economic system. The traditional family living self-sufficiently on the land is the ideal promoted by Distributism; it is based on the example of the Holy Family.
 Commentary:
No.  First (as noted above) there is no such thing as a “Catholic economic system.”  Second, the family is the basic unit of society, not just the economic system.  The Family is not based on the Holy Family — as effect cannot precede cause, that would imply that there were no families before the Holy Family existed — rather, the Holy Family is the exemplar for the Family, not its origin.
We will continue our commentary tomorrow.
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