From time to time, readers of The Distributist Review comment on how many articles we have specifically relating to Catholic teaching. There seems to be a view that the case for Distributism should be made on the basis of the economic argument alone, without specific reference to any specific religious view, lest we drive away non-Catholics. This raises a legitimate question for everyone considering Distributism. Is Distributism Catholic? The answer to the question is both yes and no. In the interest of full disclosure, I am Catholic, as are the majority of the writers for The Distributist Review. This will come as no surprise to those who have read more than a few of our articles, but some of our articles have been written by non-Catholics. However, I am digressing from the point which is to address why the answer to the question, “Is Distributism Catholic?” is both yes and no.
The Reason Distributism is not Specifically Catholic
Distributism is based on philosophical ideas. Contrary to the understanding of many, philosophy is not the same as theology or religion. It is a separate field even if the topics overlap. Many of the principles put forth by Distributism can be also found in the teachings of other religions and cultures from around the world. Many of the philosophical teachings that are the basis of Distributism pre-date Christianity. Aristotle advocated many of the same positions as Distributists. Therefore, these philosophical views cannot be said to be specifically Catholic. Additionally, just as there isn’t one strict form of government compatible with Catholicism, there is not just one economic system that is compatible with Catholicism. It is possible to have a capitalist system that is compatible with Catholicism, but many elements currently accepted as part of Capitalism throughout the world—like usury—would have to be removed from it to do so.
The Reason Distributism is Catholic
Distributism as a distinct economic view came into being as a result of papal teaching. Popes addressing issues of economic and social justice wrote encyclicals which inspired groups of Catholics to form a movement that attempted to present those issues, and solutions to them, to the wider public. This movement took the name of Distributism or Distributivism (although its founders voiced their desire for a better name). Although this movement included non-Catholics from the beginning, the positions advocated by Distributists are consistent with Catholic teachings on economic and social justice. In other words, Distributism consists of philosophical positions on economic and social structures that are compatible with the Catholic Faith. One can no more separate Distributism from Catholic teaching than one can separate the original United States Constitution from the writings of John Locke.
What Does This Mean for Non-Catholics Considering Distributism?
The real question for non-Catholics considering Distributism is whether they can accept the philosophical positions that are the basis of Distributism. One need not be a Catholic to be a Distributist any more than one needs to be Catholic to believe those who can should help those in need. The point is that acceptance of Distributism by non-Catholics is not based on the fact it is consistent with Catholicism; it is based on the fact that Distributism is a philosophically sound and practical economic and social view. Catholics who accept Distributism do so on both grounds.
You might be asking why, if this is the case, there are so many specifically Catholic articles on The Distributist Review. Our society promotes the error that faith should be confined within the walls of the home and place of worship, that it has no bearing on economics and politics and should essentially be hidden from public life. Catholicism teaches, as do other faiths, that faith applies to all aspects of life. Capitalism as practiced in the world today readily accepts many practices that are not compatible with the Catholic Faith. Therefore, we remind our fellow Catholics of this point. We present the clear and consistent teaching of the Church and ask our fellow Catholics to reconcile their own views to that teaching. Even if they continue to reject certain aspects of Distributism as an economic system, they cannot continue to accept or ignore the aspects of Capitalism that are incompatible with the Faith. We encourage non-Catholics to do the same in regard to their faiths and have welcomed such comments posted by our readers.
We believe it would be wrong, it would be dishonest, to hide the fact that Distributism has ties to Catholic teaching. What would be the purpose of doing so, to hide the fact from non-Catholics? No. We will be open about these ties, and we expect any non-Catholics that accept Distributist ideas as compatible with their faiths to be open about the fact. It is not something that needs to be hidden.
Consider the following questions.
Do you agree that it is fundamentally unjust for our government to borrow in order to save huge banks and corporations that are “too big to fail” and do almost nothing to help the average small business owner and worker who were hit much harder by the current economic crisis?
Would you agree that the way this crisis has been handled demonstrates that our government, regardless of the political party, responds to the cries of Big Business instead of to the cries of the population-at-large? Is not the reason it does so because of the imbalanced amount of control that these few businesses can exert on the economy?
Do you agree that a society where the majority of capital (the means of production) is owned by a large segment of the population, is better than one where it is owned, and therefore controlled, by a small segment of the population (who own the businesses that are “too big to fail”)?
Do you believe that families are more economically free and independent if they own (either independently or in corporation) the capital used to provide for their needs?
Do you agree that government should be greatly restricted in its ability to interfere with family life, with things like the raising and education of children?
Do you agree that, even though monopolies can greatly reduce the cost of production, the means of doing so are often at the expense of the society (lower wages, out-sourced production, loss of local jobs, etc.), while maintaining their own high profits?
In your opinion, do you think it is wrong for companies to layoff hard working people just to hire cheap labor overseas, in countries using child and forced labor under intolerable conditions?
Do you agree that a large number of small producers results in a more stable economy; that it is better that entire industries should not be brought to their knees by the bad management of a few huge corporations; and that we should not be dependent on large distant sources for basic necessities like food?
Would you say that, as large companies grow into oligopolies, they are less likely to feel the pressure of competition that would otherwise maintain just wages and prices?
Do you find it ironic that the supporters of “free market” monopolistic Capitalism are always talking about the benefits of competition when the goal of large companies is to eliminate competition?
Do you agree that it is fundamentally wrong for banks to put small businesses at a disadvantage by only making loans to them at high rates of interest while offering very low interest to big business; even when there is practically no difference in risk?
One does not need to be a Catholic to agree with these, or the many other points made by the Distributist movement.