Anti-Capitalism on the Southern Horizon?

July-August 1993By Arthur F. McGovern

The Rev. Arthur F. McGovern, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at the University of Detroit Mercy and the author, most recently, of Libera­tion Theology and Its Critics.

The Two Churches: Catholi­cism & Capitalism in the World System.  By Michael L. Budde. Duke University Press. 172 pages. $29.95.



Will the Catholic Church in the years ahead find herself torn internally by conflict over the issue of capitalism’s dom­inance in the world? Michael Budde believes she will. He sees two churches forming within world Catholicism: the church of the majority, in poor coun­tries of the Southern Hemi­sphere, strongly opposing cap­italism, and the church of the minority, in the more affluent countries of the North, ac­commodating herself to capital­ism and offering it little serious criticism. This sharp difference, complemented by strongly di­vergent ecclesiologies, points to the likelihood of a major con­flict within world Catholicism, contends Budde.

The majority/minority divi­sion, Budde believes, follows dramatic demographic changes that have occurred during this century. In 1900, 70 percent of the world’s Catholics resided in Europe and North America. By the year 2000, 70 percent will reside in countries of the South. By 1987, Latin America alone had more Catholics than Europe and North America combined, and Catholics in Africa outnumbered those in the U.S.

To establish his contention that the poor-majority church will take a strongly anti-cap­italist position, Budde relies heavily on socio-economic analyses provided by World Systems Theory. This theory, first developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, holds that a single world economy — a capitalist economy that originated in the 16th century — determines to a great extent the economies of individual nations. Within this single world economy three distinct spheres have de­veloped. The core, located in the advanced industrial nations of the North, is characterized by high productivity and high-wage tasks. It benefits only a small minority of the world’s population. The periphery, characterized by low productiv­ity and low-wage tasks, is spread across Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia in the South. A small stratum of mid-range countries constitutes a third sphere, a semi-periph­ery. The core has enriched itself by exploiting and control­ling the periphery. The pe­riphery, locked into a world economy that impedes its development, has, not surprisingly, developed strong anti-capitalist attitudes and analyses.

Religion, in World System Theory, is accorded a rather insignificant role in the ongoing periphery-vs.-core struggle. Wallerstein views religion as “cultural cement” for nation-building, used to legitimate the status quo. Budde seeks to correct this view of religion. He believes the Catholic Church will play a significant role in the world struggle both for and against capitalism.

The two churches, besides taking radically different positions on capitalism, also operate out of divergent ecclesiologies, according to Budde. The dominant ecclesiology in the North views the Church as universal and hierarchical, and as able to accommodate herself to existing politico-economic systems. She uses a “loose” ecclesiology (though Budde acknowledges the presence of both forms). The newer ecclesiology, represented by Christian base communities in Latin America, takes on many aspects of religious “sects.” Like the sects, the base communities are smaller, more communal, and more egalitarian and democratic. Unlike the sects, however, which traditionally disengage themselves from politics, the “tight” ecclesiology of the base communities makes strong political de­mands on its members. These demands involve hostility to capitalism, which is seen as the root cause of poverty and oppression.

Budde proceeds to eval­uate the forces engaged in the battle for and against the world capitalist system. In Latin America he finds a deeply entrenched anti-capitalism. Even opponents of libera­tion theology speak ill of the prevailing system. A number of factors contribute to this anti-capitalism: the core/periph­ery division, the increasing poverty and marginalization of the masses, the growth of strong opposition movements, and a crushing debt. The Church contributes her own an­ti-capitalist factors: base com­munities (which the Church needs to counter competition from evangelical groups), pas­toral agents, talented liberation theologians committed to the poor, and papal encyclicals that criticize capitalism’s abuses.

Budde also recognizes Catholic forces that counter anti-capitalism in Latin Ameri­ca: a Vatican bureaucracy that wants stability and order and counsels against political con­flict, a CELAM organization and many local bishops who reject any movements that involve any Marxist ideas, plus interested U.S. theologians and groups of a conservative bent. Budde views Pope John Paul II as an ambiguous, “contingent” factor. When the Pope speaks out on justice issues, he speaks for the have-nots. But other priorities (for example, reassert­ing Church authority and sexual morality) have led him to replace progressive bishops with conservative ones.

The Church in the U.S., says Budde, has had opportunities to take prophetic stands against capitalism, but has failed to do so. The U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pas­toral letter on the U.S. econo­my (1986), but it stopped short of any structural analysis of the capitalist system. The letter’s biblical and ethical sections could have served to introduce a more radical critique, but its policy sections offered only reformist proposals addressed to power-holders.

“Catholic nationalism,” says Budde, has served as an abiding framework for the Catholic Church in the U.S., a framework which assumes that the U.S. model of government and economy offers the best hope for the world. The Church thus allows a “loose ecclesiology,” one that avoids making any strong demands on the political consciences of her members.

If the institutional Church offers little hope for a strong politico-economic critique of the U.S. system, neither do the major contributors to U.S. Catholic social ethics. Budde devotes a chapter to their views. John Courtney Murray set the trend, using natural law arguments to contend for the compatibility of Catholicism with the U.S. political-econom­ic system. The social ethicists whom Budde examines — Charles Curran, Richard McBrien, Dennis McCann, George Weigel — range from liberal to conservative in their views, but all of them assume the basic soundness of the U.S. system. All of them operate from a “loose ecclesiology” that bows to pluralism and makes few demands.

The apparent collapse of Soviet-style Marxism in eastern Europe, Budde notes, will not alter the strong anti-capitalism of the Church in the Third World, since the liberationist movement never relied on the Soviet model for its inspiration. We can expect, then, a class conflict within the Church herself: the majority church of the South increasingly antag­onistic to capitalism, opposed to a minority church in the North defending and benefit­ing from the world capitalist system.

This very interesting book succeeds on several scores and fails on others. It certainly suc­ceeds in developing a clear central thesis. Budde explains his terms, weighs the pros and cons of competing views, and writes with lucidity and con­sistency. He draws upon anal­yses that Catholic social ethi­cists should, indeed, consider more seriously. Third World poverty cannot be explained away as a failure of its own making. The core/periphery analysis does point to severe power imbalances and injus­tices in international trade. Long before dependency the­ory came onto the scene, histo­rians had noted the heavy dependency of Latin America and other poor areas on export of primary goods to rich na­tions. The current debt prob­lem illustrates the same de­pendency. More radical cri­tiques of the U.S. political system stress the power of wealthy constituents on politi­cal-economic decisions. Con­servatives, for example, clamor about wasteful spending on welfare, on the undeserving “them” (African-Americans us­ually implied), while ignoring the immense “corporate wel­fare” — estimated in a 1984 study by the Congressional Budget Office at over $450 billion annually — that sup­ports U.S. industrial capitalism.

Many of Budde’s positions, however, contain some very questionable assessments re­garding capitalism and the in­fluence of religion. (Also, the very real conflicts in the Catho­lic Church do not appear cen­tered on capitalism.)

In respect to his discussion of capitalism, several serious difficulties surface. First, Budde assumes, almost as given, that World Systems Theory offers the correct explanation of the periphery’s economic problems (though in fairness, a convinc­ing attempt to prove its analy­sis with supporting evidence would have required a consid­erably longer book). Second, Latin America’s economic sys­tem does not fit neatly under the simple heading of capital­ism, even of periphery capital­ism. The prevailing system there has indeed failed to benefit the vast majority of its people, but the system is a hybrid of capitalism, feudalism, and state monopolies. Jose Carlos Mariategui, considered by many the foremost Marxist theoretician in Latin American history, consistently described Latin America’s economy as a carry-over from feudalism. He saw feudal concentration of land ownership as the major cause of Latin America’s back­wardness, comparing this with the achievements and produc­tivity of the more distributed private property patterns in North America. Third, Budde’s assessment gives no indication of which elements of capitalism need to be rejected and which retained if he wishes to avoid the Soviet-style systems he rejects.

In respect to the influence of religion, Budde greatly overestimates the political po­tential of Christian base com­munities. They do, in my judgment, offer an inspiring way of giving a voice to the poor, but they constitute a small fraction of the population of Latin America (perhaps two percent). Moreover, I am much less optimistic than Budde about official, hierarchical sup­port for radical change in Latin America. Some bishops did speak out courageously when their governments and military ruthlessly violated human rights. Many may continue to voice concern for the poor, but I would judge that very few (a diminishing few given recent Vatican appointments) will speak out strongly against capitalism as such. Certainly last year’s general conference of Latin American bishops avoided denunciations of capi­talism. Some of the preparato­ry documents did include con­demnations of a “neo-liberal mentality” (e.g., putting greed for profit above the basic needs of the poor), but they did not call into question the basic in­stitutions of the capitalist sys­tem (private property and a free market). Moreover, while they spoke of the crippling effect of Latin America’s debt problem and of the increasing disparity of income between the rich and the poor, they backed away from statements that described the causes in core/periphery language or its equivalents.

In the U.S. “cultural Ca­tholicism” does indeed prevail. Andrew Greeley is right: Cath­olics increasingly make up their own minds on issues of politics and economics, as well as on issues of sexual morality (where some Church officials would want to see a “tight” ecclesiology). But Church social teachings do seem to have some effect; again, Greeley’s surveys show Catholics more liberal than the populace as a whole on economic issues. Yet the Church appears to have a rather negligible influence in shaping economic policies. The bishops’ pastoral letter on the econ­omy hardly served as a framework for discussion in subsequent U.S. elections. Tak­ing a more radical stance would not likely change this, at least not until a great num­ber of Americans begin to de­velop strong anti-capitalist feel­ings.

In short, while I am not at all convinced that Budde has proved his central thesis, that two conflicting churches will significantly influence the fu­ture of the world capitalist sys­tem, I would certainly recom­mend his book as well written and forcefully presented. A good book stimulates serious thought. Budde’s work achieves that goal admirably.



DOSSIER: Economics & Catholic Social Teaching



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