The ABC’s of Catholic Economics
By William Schulz
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.
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.
is for Belloc, Hillaire, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is for Guild, the traditional way of organizing workers and employers in an harmonious, mutually supportive system. The Medieval guilds worked to care for their members, create self-sustaining economic systems, and give even the poorest members a voice in municipal government.
is for Home, the well-kept, safe, and holy environment for the educating and nurturing of children. If Distributism is the economic system of saints, then the home is where those saints are made.
is for Idolatry, the worship of that other than God. The idols of liberalism are false freedom and the omnipotent invisible hand of the market. The idols of socialism are the State and false progress. Both worship the great evil of untruth that the Church stands against.
is for Justice, Social, the phrase coined by Pope Leo XIII in the Nineteenth century. True social justice lies in peaceful class relations, natural law, and hierarchy.
is for the Kingship of Christ. The ruler of all of Creation and the sovereign to whom all Catholics owe our ultimate obedience.
is for Leo XIII the creator of the term “social justice.” Leo was a visionary pope who made the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas the philosophical foundation of the Catholic faith (Aeterni Patris), wrote the prayer to Saint Michael, and issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum as the Church’s first formal teaching on economics and politics in the Modern Age.
is for Maurin, Peter, who was Dorothy Day’s mentor and the co-founder of the Catholic Worker. Maurin was a living example of blessed Franciscan poverty, having once slept in an abandoned coke oven while preaching and working as a miner. Maurin’s radical street preaching constantly stressed the need to live simpler, self-sufficient lives on the land.
is for New Deal, the massive expansion of the State ushered in by President Franklin Roosevelt and emblematic of the Welfare-Warfare State of the Modern Age. Distributists, including Dorothy Day, fiercely opposed this unprecedented government expansion. Peter Maurin criticized State-based welfare (as opposed to personal charity) as merely “passing the buck,” and most un-Christian.
is for Obedience. The Church teaches us that there are two forms of law, divine and man-made. We, as Catholics, are obliged to obey the laws of God as we know them (natural law). As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, “An unjust law (one not in accord with natural law) is no law at all.”
is for Pius XI, the pope of the Inter-War years (1922 – 1939). A great and gifted champion of the Church and humanity, Pius condemned racism and nationalism (Mit brennender Sorge), created the Feast of Christ the King to remind Christians that their first loyalty is to Christ not any earthly sovereign, and expanded Leo XIII’s teachings on politics and economics.
is for Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI’s encyclical issue in 1931 confirming the teachings of Rerum Novarum and expanding them in great detail, praising workers’ co-operatives and family businesses, while condemning socialism and unrestrained capitalism.
is for Rerum Novarum, the encyclical issued on May 15, 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. Rerum sought to address the shocking injustices of modernity by condemning usury, finance capitalism, and socialism. Rerum emphasized the dignity of labor and the rights and responsibilities of workers.
is for Sheen, Fulton, the man known to so many as “America’s Bishop.” Archbishop Sheen inspired many to convert to the Catholic faith, and provided decades of books and lectures on the evils of atheism, socialism, and usury.
is for Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R. Tolkien), the famed author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Although Tolkien never understood his works to be allegories of the Gospels, nevertheless his close friendship with C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and other Distributist authors inspired Tolkien’s vision of the ideal Distributist community: the Shire.
is for Unity, a key teaching of the Church. For there to be peace, there must exist a state of harmony and shared purpose between clans, classes, and communities. The family (the clan) is the first and most important of these, then the economic groups (the classes), and then the political organization (the communities).
is for Violence, condemned by the Church and the Distributists under all but the most exacting circumstances (Just War). Violence is endemic to the State, especially the modern total war State, which is, in part, why many of the Distributists preferred monarchy or anarchy as the best form of government.
is for Worker, Catholic, the movement and newspaper founded on Distributist principles by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933.
is for Xavier, Francis. Although known more as a gifted missionary, Saint Francis Xavier was also a brilliant organizer of fledgling Christian communities, and a missionary who understood the importance of local clergy and leaders providing for both the physical and spiritual needs of their flock.
is for Young Men’s Institute, an example of the kind of fraternal benefit organizations that were once common amongst Catholic communities. Distributism views such organizations as key to community stability and family security.
is for Zita’s Home for Friendless Women, a shelter for women rejected by society. Mother Zita (Emily O’Keefe, an Irish immigrant to New York) founded the home and insisted that a Sister sleep by the door so that women seeking shelter could be admitted at any hour of the day or night. The last of their nuns and some former residents now live in St. Zita's Villa, a home for elderly women, in Monsey, N.Y.