Home / Economics / Catholic Social Teaching / Is the Acton Institute a Genuine Expression of Catholic Social Thought?

 

Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1834-1902) is chiefly remembered today for his remark that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it would be well were more generally known about him, for as a leader of liberal Catholicism in the nineteenth century he is a fitting symbol in the conflict between different versions of the Faith which has afflicted the Church since the 1960s. It is interesting, therefore, that Acton has been chosen as the patron of an institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an institute that is often considered as part of the orthodox Catholic “movement” in the United States. But as we will see, the institute’s name and patron are well chosen, for it continues the tradition of liberal and even dissenting Catholicism that Lord Acton himself partook of and that many of the Acton Institute’s supporters would doubtless blush to be identified with, if they knew exactly who Acton was and what he stood for.

The true face of the Acton Institute is clear from statements made, or formerly made, on their web site, for example, their kind words about Ignaz von Döllinger (theological tutor of Lord Acton), who left the Church rather than accept the definition of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council, and their opposition to censorship of pornography on the Internet, but in this article I will concentrate on their dissent from the social magisterium of the Catholic Church. I will examine assertions made by the Institute’s president, Fr. Robert Sirico, to see whether they can be squared with the explicit teaching of the Church.

First, however, we must look at the underlying difficulty, the root, in fact, of the Acton Institute’s dissent from the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. This lies in their unabashed acceptance of liberalism. In discussing liberalism it is imperative to recognize that this term, as used in papal teaching, does not mean the same thing as it does in contemporary political discourse in the United States. We would do well to spend some time discussing exactly what liberal means in order to understand the fundamental disagreement between the Acton Institute and Catholic doctrine.

Liberalism, as that term is used in papal teaching, and indeed in Europe and throughout most of the world, is that movement in Western civilization which arose in opposition to the Christian political and economic order of the Middle Ages, and to the continuation of that order by all or most European governments even after the Middle Ages ended. Thus these governments believed that they had duties toward God, including that of caring for the poor and seeing that the economy fulfilled its function of supplying all citizens with the material things needed for this life. Certainly these governments fulfilled their duties imperfectly, but none of them would have denied that it had such a duty.

Liberalism, however, in effect denies that the state or the human community is a creation of God or has duties toward him. At most, liberalism accepts that the individual has duties toward God. Important liberal theorists such as John Locke, held that society and the state originated in an agreement among men, the so-called social contract, and thus was a purely human creation, and as such, can have no inherent duties toward God. Liberal economic writers, such as Adam Smith, attacked the notion that the state should regulate the economy in the interests of the common good, positing instead that the economy was a self-regulating mechanism, the less interfered with by the state the better.

The Catholic Church confronted liberalism in the eighteenth, and especially the nineteenth, centuries. And against this liberal doctrine Bl. Pius IX, and even more clearly his successor, Leo XIII, taught that the state itself was a creation of God and thus had duties to God.

For men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, not less than individuals, owes gratitude to God, who gave it being and maintains it, and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings.(Leo XIII, Encyclical Immortale Dei, November 1, 1885)

Liberals were not only hostile to the concept of the state as created by God and subject to his laws, but they opposed any efforts of the government to intervene in the supposedly self-regulating market. They loudly cried that such economic restraints retarded the progress of humanity. Now economic activity no longer was to need regulation, for the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith was to guarantee that greed and self-interest would work out the best for everyone.

What was the result of this new approach to economics and government? Pope Leo’s classic description is worth repeating:

The ancient workmen’s Guilds were destroyed in the last century, and no other organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws have repudiated the ancient religion. Hence by degrees it has come to pass that Working Men have been given over, isolated and defenseless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition. The evil has been increased by a rapacious Usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different form but with the same guilt, still practiced by avaricious and grasping men. And to this must be added the custom of working by contract, and the concentration of so many branches of trade in the hands of a few individuals, so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the masses of the poor a yoke little better than slavery itself.(Encyclical Rerum Novarum, §2; May 15, 1891)

Thus liberalism, as used in papal documents, and as it affects the economic order, means something like what John Paul II has called “rigid capitalism” or “unbridled capitalism,” a more or less free-market approach to the economy. It obviously includes important elements of what we in the United States call conservatism. Now let us turn to the Acton Institute’s own statements and see how they characterize the relations of liberalism and Catholicism.

In a column in the September/October 1997 issue of Religion & Liberty, Fr. Sirico writes of John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, and asserts that in that document “two traditions have come together…religious orthodoxy and classical liberal social theory….” Whether Fr. Sirico’s claim that Centesimus does indeed accept the liberal tradition is true or not, we will examine later, but it is interesting that Fr. Sirico is not bold enough to claim that the Church has always accepted the free market, for in the same article he writes that:

the Church, during certain periods, has strongly criticized what was construed to be the free society, partly because some social thinkers conflated the theories of economic liberalism with moral libertinism, viewing them as one in the same and as mutually reinforcing.

But now, he claims, because “of the courage of John Paul II and his case in favor of the free society… No longer do we feel compelled to speak of classical liberalism and religious orthodoxy as belonging to two separate intellectual worlds.”

Thus we have Fr. Sirico’s frank admission that he stands in the tradition of liberal thought, so that if we find the Church has always condemned that tradition, then logically Fr. Sirico’s entire enterprise will fall. For the popes objected to the tradition of liberalism not merely because they saw it as promoting “moral libertinism,” but because their conception of the task of government is entirely at odds with Fr. Sirico’s. The government as such is a creation of God, and as such has duties toward God and toward its subjects. It is not a mere enforcer of contracts, but must have an active care for the common good.

In the same article Fr. Sirico has some interesting words about Lord Acton. Speaking of the conflict between the Catholic and liberal traditions, Sirico says,

As the tensions mounted in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the allegiances of men such as Lord Acton were torn as they came to believe that they had to choose between spiritual authority and the dictates of reason, a situation the late scholastics would have seen as a grave departure from teaching of their master, Saint Thomas.

It is not just the late scholastics who would have viewed such a man with alarm, but St. Thomas himself. But the Angelic Doctor’s reply would have been that the poor man in question had not reasoned well if he found himself opposed to the teachings of the Church. The necessary agreement between the Catholic faith and human reason does not mean the necessary agreement between the Catholic faith and Lord Acton’s reasoning. Since our reasoning can err, but the Church cannot, it is clear which of the two must yield. This is not to denigrate reason, but to point out that no individual is infallible in his own reasoning power.

Before proceeding further we will look at some statements of various popes to see if there has been a consistent tradition of papal condemnation of liberalism, including the liberal tradition in both government and economics. In these selections, which I take from various papal documents, I will show how liberalism, either by name or not, has been explicitly defined as an enemy of Catholic faith and Christian civilization. First two selections from Pope Pius XI:

With regard to the civil power, Leo XIII boldly passed beyond the restrictions imposed by liberalism, and fearlessly proclaimed the doctrine that the civil power is more than the mere guardian of law and order, and that it must strive with all zeal “to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, should be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity.” (Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, §25, May 15, 1931)

In fact, the Encyclical Rerum Novarum completely overthrew those tottering tenets of liberalism which had long hampered effective intervention by the government. It prevailed upon the peoples themselves to develop their social policy more intensely and on truer lines, and also encouraged outstanding Catholics to give such efficacious help and assistance to rulers of the State that in legislative assemblies they were not infrequently the foremost advocates of the new policy. (Ibid., §27)

Next, a passage from Pope Pius XII:

And, while the State in the nineteenth century, through excessive exaltation of liberty, considered as its exclusive scope the safe-guarding of liberty by the law, Leo XIII admonished it that it had also the duty to interest itself in social welfare, taking care of the entire people and of all its members, especially the weak and the dispossessed, through a generous social programme and the creation of a labor code. (Address to Italian workers on the Feast of Pentecost, June 1, 1941)

Then a quotation from Pope Paul VI:

On another side, we are witnessing a renewal of the liberal ideology. This current asserts itself both in the name of economic efficiency, and for the defence of the individual against the increasingly overwhelming hold of organizations, and as a reaction against the totalitarian tendencies of political powers. Certainly, personal initiative must be maintained and developed. But do not Christians who take this path tend to idealize liberalism in their turn, making it a proclamation in favor of freedom? They would like a new model, more adapted to present-day conditions, while easily forgetting that at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty. Hence, the liberal ideology likewise calls for careful discernment on their part. (Octogesima Adveniens, §35, May 14, 1971)

These statements alone ought to convince any Catholic who cares to think with the Church, that the Church has always opposed liberalism and its restricted notion of the role of government. But now I will take certain specific statements made by the Acton Institute, statements which reveal its application of liberalism to the economy, and contrast them with the teaching of the Church, including that of Centesimus Annus.

First let us look at a quote from Lord Acton, printed on the cover of a leaflet distributed by the Institute. “Liberty is the highest political end of man…”! This assertion is hardly congruent with the teaching of the Catholic tradition. St. Thomas, for example, says that the end of society is “to live according to virtue” (De Regimine Principum, I, 14). And this truth, that both individual man and man in society are both ordered, not toward freedom, but toward virtue as the ultimate end, is the truth upon which the entire liberal tradition founders. Liberty the highest political end of man? Not justice, not virtue, not the common good? All else flows from this fundamental error, the error, in fact, of Lucifer, who desired liberty above all else. The society that values liberty as its highest political goal, that refuses to safeguard the common good (except by pious exhortations), that allows for complete freedom of contract—this will be the domain of the Devil and his adherents and apologists.

The next statement of Fr. Sirico’s that we will look at is this: “So long as individuals avoid forceful or fraudulent actions in their dealings with one another, government is to stay out of their business” (Acton Notes, January 1998). Anyone at all acquainted with the tradition of Catholic social thought knows that this can hardly be squared with the teaching of the Magisterium. To take but a few examples, we have Leo XIII’s teaching in Rerum Novarum,

The richer population have many ways of protecting themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; those who are badly off have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly rely upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, who are, undoubtedly, among the weak and necessitous should be specially cared for and protected by the commonwealth. (§29)

And, in a statement that utterly contradicts what Fr. Sirico says, Leo rejects the theory that free agreement between employer and employee should be the rule in economic affairs when he notes, in connection with the question of a just wage, that

there is a dictate of nature more imperious and more ancient than any bargain between man and man, that the remuneration must be enough to support the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort. (Rerum Novarum, §45)

It is simply false to say that, absent force or fraud, the government should stay out of people’s business.

We have already seen how in Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI says that Leo XIII “boldly passed beyond the restrictions imposed by liberalism, and fearlessly proclaimed the doctrine that the civil power is more than the mere guardian of law and order…” (no. 25). In other words, Pius XI explicitly denies the conception of government which Fr. Sirico champions, and like Leo, sees a strong, though not unlimited, role for the state. It is true that the popes have been careful not to call for a statist solution to socio-economic problems, but it should be clear that they definitely see an activist role for government, but within limits. However, these limits are not the limits that Fr. Sirico would like to impose on the state.

John Paul II in Centesimus makes clear that the state has a wider role than merely enforcing laws against force or fraud, but that it must be concerned with the

preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces. Just as in the time of primitive capitalism the State had the duty of defending the basic rights of workers, so now, with the new capitalism, the State and all of society have the duty of defending those collective goods which, among others, constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals on the part of each individual.(§40)

And immediately he states: “Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic.”

Other statements that John Paul makes in the same encyclical are equally damning to Fr. Sirico’s position. First here is a statement from Centesimus, one of the handful that Fr. Sirico and those of like mind often quote:

It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.(§34)

But the Pontiff immediately goes on to say,

But this is true only for those needs which are “solvent,” insofar as they are endowed with purchasing power, and for those resources which are “marketable,” insofar as they are capable of obtaining a satisfactory price. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish…. Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to the person because he is a person, by reason of his lofty dignity.

A similar caution on the market may be found in the following statement of John Paul, speaking of the kind of society that we should desire and work toward:

Such a society is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.(§35)

These statements are enough for anyone to see that Fr. Sirico and Catholic teaching are not in agreement, for Fr. Sirico would never admit that the market needed to be “controlled,” least of all by the state.

The apparent plausibility of Fr. Sirico’s position comes from the fact that he contrasts the free market only with the evils of statism, socialism and communism. Most people think that either capitalism or some form of socialism are the only “live options” in economics. They are hardly aware that the economic arrangements advocated by the popes are neither those of socialism nor of free-market capitalism, and if someone were to tell them about Distributism or Solidarism, they would likely reply that since they do not presently exist, or perhaps never existed, they need not be taken seriously. This makes as much sense as to say that since there never has been a society in which chastity was entirely observed, we should not bother to promote chastity in our own society. Nor can we ignore the statement of Pope John Paul II in Centesimus that “it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization” (§35). (“Real Socialism” means, of course, Marxist socialism or communism.)

I should also raise the issue of how far Fr. Sirico and his colleagues are misrepresenting others’ opinions in their effort to promote classical liberalism. For example, on their website they have a section called “In the Liberal Tradition,” in which they feature various thinkers whom they assert to be fellow liberals. Let us look at just two of them. First, St. Thomas Aquinas. They represent him as a liberal by quoting some of his words in favor of private ownership of property. By this preposterous method they might as well feature Chesteron and Belloc, both bitter critics of capitalism, but strong defenders of private property. In any case, I think Fr. Sirico knows that to defend private property (as I myself do) by no means places one in the camp of classical liberalism, but simply indicates that one is not a Communist.

Equally ludicrous is C.S. Lewis, whom they claim as one of their own, apparantly on the strength of favorable comments that he made about democracy and against unlimited government. They rather ignore the following words of Lewis from Mere Christianity:

All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more than we can take. It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. And there is to be no “swank” or “side,” no putting on airs. To that extent a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist.

And in the next paragraph he says that we “should feel that its economic life was very socialistic….” This part of Lewis’s beliefs seems to have been conveniently overlooked.

It is far from clear how Fr. Sirico and other Catholic libertarians can justify their attempt to reconcile Catholic tradition with classical liberalism. Do they really believe that the Church’s social teaching and traditon can change so easily as to make obsolete centuries of the papal magisterium? Are they really unaware that such notable Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century who turned their attention to economics, as G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson and many others, were critics of capitalism? I cannot answer these questions. But what we can know is that the Acton Institute’s promotion of liberalism is not something that can be embraced by an orthodox Catholic. Sirico, like Acton and Döllinger, is not a safe guide but rather a dissenter from the fullness of the Faith, a blind guide who will only lead his followers into a pit. Please God, it will not be into the bottomless pit.

Published in Social Justice Review, vol. 93, no. 5-6, May-June 2002

 

About the author: Thomas Storck

 

Thomas Storck is the author of Foundations of a Catholic Political Order, The Catholic Milieu, and Christendom and the West. His work has appeared in various publications including Homiletic and Pastoral Review and the book, Beyond Capitalism and Socialism. Mr. Storck is a former contributing editor of New Oxford Review and Caelum et Terra and serves on the editorial board of The Chesterton Review.An archive of Mr. Storck's writings can be found at www.thomasstorck.org.

 

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20 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tom Storck on the Acton Institute and Classical Liberalism « Caelum Et Terra

  2. Pingback: Tasty Tidbits 7/5/11 « Tipsy Teetotaler

  3. Speaking of dubious founders, I would like to see the folks here at the Distributist Review take on the charges made against them and some of their patrons made over at TraditionInAction. Those with distributist leanings, including myself, would benefit from a response to their serious claims. Thanks!

  4. Their serious “claims” are nothing but hot air, IMHO. They truly don’t know Catholic social teaching, making accusations of much the same thing as followers of Mises: Distributism equals Socialism.

  5. It’s worth it to repeat Christopher Ferrara’s reply in a recent interview he gave concerning his book “The Church and the Libertarian”:

    CF: Those “traditionalists” who equate Socialism and Distributism have no idea what Distributism is or else are presenting it dishonestly. I am amazed at the level of obfuscation that has surrounded this simple matter. Distributism means simply the widest possible ownership of private property—that is, widely distributed ownership, hence Distributism.

    Distributism means a society of small owners, which is what the whole pre-Socialist Western world was under Catholic social order. It means as much free enterprise as possible for the common man. As Chesterton put it so brilliantly: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”

    Carping “traditionalist” critics of Distributism spend a lot of time rooting about in the works of particular distributist sources, such as the writings of Penty, in order to find evidence of the spectre of socialism—the same bugaboo liberals always raise to herd the masses into the concentration camp of rampant economic liberalism, where Wal-Mart with its Chinese wage slaves is portrayed as a bulwark of human liberty.

    But in principle, Distributism is the polar of opposite of Socialism. Nothing about Distributism involves government seizure of anybody’s property. On the contrary, Distributists seek drastic reduction in the power of government precisely because Big Government has always favored Big Business and helped it to crush the small owner in a thousand different ways. As government recedes, and with it the massive advantages of Big Business over its small competitors, small ownership would return naturally.

    Capitalism, as I show in the book, is not even at the midpoint between the two poles of Distributism and Socialism, but has actually evolved Leftward into a privatized socialism—Big Business in league with Big Government and Big Finance all over the world. Exhibit A: Bill Gates, promoter of socialism. Exhibit B: Warren Buffet, promoter of socialism. Exhibit C: Wal-Mart, which urges its employees to rely on government-subsidized health care. Exhibit D: The entire capitalist-created network of fractional reserve banking, which goes back centuries, was invented by financial “entrepreneurs” and is now protected by government at the behest of Big Finance. Exhibit E: Limited liability, publicly held, multinational mega-corporations, which are purely the inventions of government saddled to capitalist interests. Pius XI specifically condemned the innumerable abuses arising from this legal invention in Quadragesimo anno.

    Anyone who thinks that Wal-Mart and its communist government-subsidized legions of wage slaves in China, or any of the other globe-spanning corporate megaliths that free-ride on government privileges and outsource labor, represents “free enterprise” versus evil Distributism needs to acquaint himself with the Church’s social teaching immediately.

    Why do certain “traditionalists” oppose Catholic social teaching? For the same reason I once might have: They do not understand that they are bourgeois liberals who merely think they are “conservatives.” They have accepted the false dichotomy by which Liberalism has overtaken and overthrown all that remained of Christocentric social order: “freedom” or “socialism.”

  6. Thank you, Paul, for posting this. I’d quibble with a couple points. Chris stated, “[Distributism] means as much free enterprise as possible for the common man.” Well, not exactly “free enterprise” I’d say, in the sense that everyone could necessarily charge whatever price he wanted, pay whatever wages he wanted, etc. Each owner would still be bound by the duty of charging fair prices, paying just wages, etc.

    And I think Catholic thought is neither liberal nor conservative, left or right. Those are both post-Enlightenment categories which have no reference to Catholic principles.

  7. The Acton Institute is precisely as Dr. Storck describes; they are a savvy bunch, though, when it comes to marketing their precepts, and clearly well-funded, most likely by some very deep pockets who are trying to keep the liberal, capitalistic gravy train from succumbing to its inherent implosive forces. The liberal anti-state rhetoric has been recently exposed and undermined by the likes of Christopher Ferrara and John Medaille in their recent works that demonstrate the actual necessity of the state to improving liberal fortunes, contrary to what they would have us believe. Acton, instead of taking traditional church teachings head on, which they know would not work out well in the long term, as it represents the messier, more expensive frontal approach, are sneakily attempting to co-opt traditional Catholic social doctrine by building the facade of an alliance. That it is a false alliance matters not, it plays right into their hands…watch what they do, not what they say. The liberal/libertarian Catholic movement consisting of at least a trilogy of operators–First Things, plus the Acton and Ludwig von Mises Institutes, with their corresponding journals and publications–is a devious, ever-so-slightly deceitful group that knows how to say just enough right–a slanted truth–to gain them entrance into traditional magisterial deliberations. A careful read, though, will uncover, as Dr. Storck has shown, more than a few subtle deviations that reveal their actual opposition to traditional Catholic doctrine. It’s, perhaps, too conspiratorial to think that they see more opportunity in subverting Catholic tradition and teaching from within than shouting it down from without, but I’m grateful to Dr. Storck for demonstrating the need to watch them closely.

  8. Ho ho! That’s a zinger of an essay. I didn’t realize this kind of papal critique went so deep. I hope Benedict decides to wield the economic orthodoxy crozier one of these days…or has he already?

  9. David,

    I got your comment in my in-box, but I don’t see it here yet. Anyway, it does seem to me that Ferrara (not Paul) is trying to say that capitalism is liberal or left. When the popes speak of liberalism, I don’t think they say it’s a kind of leftism, at least I’m not aware of any usage of Right and Left as categories in Catholic social thought. But Ferrara wrote, “Capitalism…has actually evolved Leftward into a privatized socialism.” Capitalism was always liberal, in the European and Catholic usage of the term. But yes,our conservatives are really liberals, in the papal (and European) sense of the term, as you rightly note. But it’s not therefore that we should be seeking to become some other sort of conservatives. As I said, I think both categories are post-Enlightenment, divisions of liberalism. But we don’t seek to be another or different kind of conservativism. The search for the authentic or real conservatism is just chasing after a largely useless word.

  10. “Liberty is the highest political end of man…”

    Notice that liberals never define “liberty” it is justa vague term, that usually in the end means “no limits nor restraints on Me”.Liberty to do what, Fr. Sirico?

  11. I wonder why you spend so much time dealing with the likes of the Acton Institute. Anyone with a proper knowledge of traditional Christianity and its content, or even its ethos could never confuse it with a capitalistic or liberal philosophy.

  12. Wessexman,

    Are you being serious? Acton has managed to gain influence in rather high places, including (at least for a time) in Rome. Perhaps not in the U.K., but in the U.S. and many other places.

  13. This article doesnt distinguish between classical liberalism( God given rights; small government; 18th century) and modern liberalism( Man governs all through reason; big government; Secular Humanism;Present day) and in that respect is disingenuous to a fault throughout the article.

  14. In England the Roman Church’s influence, and indeed that of any branch of Christianity, including our established church, is not at the forefront of politics. Unfortunately there is quite an anti-religious sentiment in the establishment and official culture here.

    Liberal Christianity could never influence someone who had really, and continued to, drunk deeply of traditional Christianity. The gap from Origen to Lord Acton is immense. I’d just lump it with the whole infection of liberalism in Christianity and be done with it. I wouldn’t even bother to differentiate much. If it isn’t this institute it’ll just be some other liberal outfit, telling us fornication is wonderful or slaughtering the unborn is an individual right. I think one makes a mistake by allowing the economic liberals some sort of superiority or distinction.

    ‘Speaking of dubious founders, I would like to see the folks here at the Distributist Review take on the charges made against them and some of their patrons made over at TraditionInAction. Those with distributist leanings, including myself, would benefit from a response to their serious claims. Thanks!’

    Well take this article BM;

    http://www.traditioninaction.org/HotTopics/j036ht_CritiqueDist.html

    Not only would I question this person’s knowledge of traditional Christianity and distributism, but also Socialism and Marxism. It lists accuses that Marx flung at capitalism as if they were original with him. Not only are they wrong that these distributist ideas are based on Marx, but they’re even wrong that within socialism they originated or are necessarily based on his writings.

    Aside from the obvious liberal assumptions(like talking perfunctorily about capitalist freedom and the ‘raising of living standards’.) in that article, and its crude attempt to simply link any dissatisfaction with Marx himself and just plain false renderings of the distributist position(like the implication we think there will be no employers.), there are really no arguments against distributism. It is just a pathetic, screed and to be truthful, quite intellectually dishonest. I don’t like to say personally bad things about people, but I’d be surprised if they did not know a lot of what they claim is not true or only a half-truth twisted greatly. Send the author a copy of the complete works of the Cappadocian Fathers and be done with it.

    There are some areas where Belloc and Chesterton et al could be slightly amended. They are a little too enthusiastic about democracy, the French Revolution and popularism(though many traditional conservatives can be too anti-democratic and anti-populist-indeed anti- the common man.). But this article doesn’t address that at all, nor do the other articles on that site it seems to me and takes a far worse position that Chesterton and Belloc ever did.

    I was intrigued though that they appear to have decided to turn their backs on Chesterton completely. Chesterton has his limitations, and the lauding in some quarters is a little too strong, but for modern Catholics to actually repudiate the great and good man seems almost a sacrilege to me.

    That great man once said that there are some intellectual errors so great as to come close to ordinary mortal sin. The author(s) of that article are an excellent example.

    There is an interesting passage in that article which I think shows how distributists should include a stronger focus on the traditional philosophies of art and work(Eric Gill had this to a degree of course.);

    ‘There is also the ownership a person has over his intellectual or artistic works, considered property, which give him rights over non-material goods.’

    Traditionally the core of a work of art was considered as its form or essence or its idea, in the Platonic sense. The core of art was the universal idea in the mind of God, which it imitated and indeed embodied, ontologically, in a particular, individualised mode. The artist simply was ‘inspired’ by God to ‘recreate’ what was God’s through God. This is why the signing of art and the lauding of individual human artists was rare in the middle ages and only became popular in the renaissance with the decline of a truly Christian civilisation. To claim for the individual such a right to their artistic ‘creation’, in so brazen and individualistic of ways, as if they were its ultimate originator, must then come close to heresy, as defined in this area by St.John of Damascus and the 7th Ecumenical Council. It may be beneficial for society to have some forms of intellectual property, but what we create of beauty we do through God. Any art not based on true forms is a deformity and should be left well alone(though as Plato pointed out some people like deformity.).

  15. ‘This article doesnt distinguish between classical liberalism( God given rights; small government; 18th century) and modern liberalism( Man governs all through reason; big government; Secular Humanism;Present day) and in that respect is disingenuous to a fault throughout the article.’

    The two are very much linked however, indeed there is not a clear-cut dividing line between the two and classical liberalism is also very much against the philosophical and theological basics of traditional, ‘catholic’ Christianity. For instance, rationalism was always a part of classical liberalism(though of course rationalism was part of Western Christendom going back further than this unfortunately.).

    It is quite a complex topic, so Thomas can be forgiven for not giving an overview of every branch of liberalism.

  16. RB, liberalism, considered as an historic fact or movement, includes both classical liberalsim and what is called liberalism today in the U.S. No doubt you’re aware that the U.S. is pretty unique in that usage. In most other countries and including in papal writings, liberalism means simply classical liberalism. But in my opinion both are products of the revolt against Christian faith and morals that occurred in the 16th through 18th centuries. You might find this article of mine helpful.
    http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=2724

  17. Wessexman,

    If you look at the link I provided in my response to RB, I think you’ll see an attempt to deal with all the forms of liberalism and trace their connections with each other.

  18. ‘But in my opinion both are products of the revolt against Christian faith and morals that occurred in the 16th through 18th centuries.’

    I’m quite a critic of much of Protestantism and the Reformation but it must be said that many of the problems of that era have their roots a few centuries before.

    One can speculate that the rationalism of even the early Schoolmen(as much as I admire the Angelic Doctor.), left unfortunately unguarded as it came to be, and even, as they believe in the East, the rationalism and narrowness of St.Augustine himself(as opposed to say the Cappadocian Fathers.) had important roles to play in the snowballing of errors and evils that led to modernity and liberalism in Western Christianity and which Eastern Christianity was largely spared until recent times when, like the rest of the world, it began to fall more and more under the spell of the West.

    However what isn’t particularly open to much speculation is that the rationalism of late scholasticism, the birth and infection of nominalism, the birth of the renaissance with its humanism and individualism and the bloated hierarchy of the post-Hildebrand Papacy, with its decadence and its aims at temporal rulership,- all from Latin, pre-reformation Christendom in the 14th and 15th centuries – all helped, and continued to fuel, the Protestant reformation and then the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ and modernity and liberalism.

    Protestantism often multiplied these errors, though sometimes in figures or movements like George Herbert or Jacob Boehme or High Anglicanism it partly or mostly manage to remedy them, and is generally in a worse state than even post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. However it would be wrong not to acknowledge that faults and role of pre-reformation Latin Christianity and even the post-Tridentine Church had their role to play. We could all certainly learn something from our Eastern Christian cousins, who, while we were producing the Schoolmen(as much as I admire many of the Schoolmen in their proper place.), were producing Hesychasm and who while we were producing the humanistic art of Michelangelo and his fellows were still producing the timeless beauty of traditional, Christian Iconography throughout the Slavic lands.

  19. That is a very good essay Thomas. I guess my point is that, though perhaps it isn’t always germane to trace back the seeds of Western modernity and liberalism to Greco-Roman Sophists, Materialists and Rationalists or St.Augustine or even the likes of Abelard(though this can sometimes be of interest.), modernity begins, so to speak, with William of Ockham(as a type, rather than simply an individual, though Ockham himself is the cause of much error.), Petrarch(again as a representative type of the humanistic, individualistic artist of the renaissance.) and Bonifcace IX(again as a type.).