Volume > Issue > 'Power to the People' Can Only Mean Property to the People

‘Power to the People’ Can Only Mean Property to the People

A PRACTICAL RESPONSE TO CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING

By John C. Medaille | January 2000
John C. Medaille is a realtor in Irving, Texas, a former city councilman, and a perennial student of theology at the University of Dallas.

“It is unacceptable to say that the defeat of ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only mode of economic organization.” -Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus

“Power naturally and necessarily follows property.” -Daniel Webster, address to the Massachusetts Convention, 1820

What are our economic options? Must we have either capitalism or socialism? Socialism’s obvious failures (Russia) and putative successes (China) have been brutally oppressive, while capitalism’s dubious results (a consumerist culture, ubiquitous advertising, wage-slavery, corporate conglomeration, practical monopoly) confront us daily in America. Are these the only alternatives?

On this subject the Catholic Church has great wisdom to offer. For more than a century the popes have shown themselves to be astute analysts of socialism and capitalism, and John Paul II has brought the papal critique to an unprecedented pitch of incisiveness. Both economic systems, he has written, are “in need of radical correction…. This is one of the reasons why the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, hereinafter SRS).

A radical correction means, of course, correction at the root. And John Paul in his encyclicals on economics and society has exposed the root error of both socialism and capitalism. Both are fundamentally materialist. Thus both fail to recognize man’s full nature. Though different in practice, capitalism and socialism share underlying philosophical assumptions that operate to reduce man to a cog of an economic system. They tend to absolutize economic life. In so doing they marginalize man’s spiritual and religious dimension either by openly persecuting it (as socialism does) or by treating it as a private matter deserving of no place in the public sphere (as capitalism does). Thus they not only thwart man’s spiritual freedom but also hamper his economic initiative and his achievement of his true economic vocation.

Since the American system is not socialist but capitalist, this article focuses on the Catholic argument against capitalism, primarily as made in the encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John Paul II. It then goes on to outline a corrective called Distributivism, a response first formulated by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, which is based on the realistic premise that power follows property.

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