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Probably no informed Catholic would dispute the fact that the period since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 has been a notably tumultuous period in the life of the Church. Dissent and heresy have flourished and many Catholics have little troubled to base their thought on the doctrine of the Church. Although most people focus on dissent from dogmatic truths and in certain areas of moral theology, such as contraception or abortion, the social doctrine of the Church is another area in which Catholics have failed to espouse the Church’s teaching. There was a time, though, when not a few Catholics heeded the call of the popes, especially of Pius XI and Pius XII, and battled on behalf of the Church’s social doctrine for the reconstruction and renewal of human society. In those days, when on the whole Catholics more often sought to form their minds according to Catholic teaching and tradition and obediently listen to the voice of the Church, even writers who are not particularly known for addressing the social question espoused positions which today would be considered quite radical, but were quite in accord with Catholic doctrine. For example, Msgr. (later Archbishop) Fulton Sheen wrote in his work, Communism and the Conscience of the West:

The basic assumption of bourgeois civilization was that the best interests of the world, the state and the community could be served by allowing each individual to work out his economic destiny as he saw fit. This is known as the principle of laissez faire. As far as possible individual life is unregulated by the state, whose function is purely negative, like that of a policeman. The less the state does, the better. It was not long until the evil of this principle manifested itself. If every individual is to be allowed to work out his economic destiny as he see fit, it will not be long until wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few and the vast majority are reduced, as Hilaire Belloc showed, to a slave state.[1]

And the two well-known radio priests, Frs. Leslie Rumble and Charles Carty, in their compilation, Radio Replies, in reply to the question “What alternative policy would you suggest to replace the Capitalistic one…,” stated,

I would suggest a Co-operative State, with vocational groups carrying on all present necessary works and businesses, and taking over many of the functions the State has taken upon itself. The State should give more time to regulation, and less to enterprises it has tended to assume and control. A redistribution of wealth is necessary by lifting wages from their actual condition to those necessary for a decent living, with opportunities of comfort and culture. Wages must not be sacrificed to profits—profits must, if anything, be sacrificed to wages.[2]

What is the situation today? Unfortunately as part of the turmoil and loss of faith that followed the Second Vatican Council and the many changes in Catholic praxis that were instituted in the decade following, many Catholics lost both knowledge of the Church’s social doctrine and the passionate concern for economic justice that previously was fairly widespread among informed Catholics. Today among Catholics who might be said to display interest in the faith and a desire to understand it or to engage in apostolic activity, most are only vaguely aware of the body of Catholic social doctrine, and as a result they take their socio-economic views from the secular culture. Others are indeed aware of Catholic social doctrine, but they do not approach it with the docility that ought to characterize a Catholic. In some cases they make use of selective quotations to try to make the Church’s social teaching fit in with their classical liberal capitalist ideology. And in the extreme case associated with adherents of so-called Austrian economics, they openly repudiate social doctrine, asserting that it is not really part of the legitimate teaching of the magisterium.

What seems so odd to me is that this attempt to reinterpret social doctrine, or even its arrogant rejection, is somehow not seen as part and parcel of the dissent that has followed the Council. Many people understand that if a Catholic rejects any teaching on faith or morals—the doctrine of transubstantiation or the evil or abortion—he is a dissenter or even a heretic. But somehow it is thought that this does not apply to the social teachings, even though social doctrine has been stressed by every modern pope. But because in the minds of many Catholics orthodoxy has become associated with American political conservatism, dissent on social doctrine is usually given a free pass.

What, if anything, is the remedy for this? In my opinion, probably the best means for addressing this selective dissent from Catholic teaching is simply a recovery of our Catholic identity, a recovery of a sense that it is more important to be a Catholic than to be a conservative, a liberal, an American, or indeed anything else on the face of the earth. All these other identities are acceptable only if, and to the extent that, they harmonize with our primary identity of being a Catholic. There are many, in fact, who are discovering this. People, for example, who begin by recognizing the beauty of the traditional Latin liturgy, and are led from that to the entire range of traditional Catholic thought on subjects from theology and philosophy to art to history, and not least to economic and social thought. Quite tragic, on the other hand, and in a way ridiculous, is the position of those who passionately adhere to traditional Catholic thought in some few areas, but whose primary identity remains as conservative Americans, whose Catholicism is simply their way of participating in the American Way of Life, as the sociologist Will Herberg noted many years ago.[3]

I realize that there are many who are interested in Distributism who are not Catholics, and that Distributism as an economic philosophy appeals to human reason and experience more than to the Gospel and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. So naturally I welcome the cooperation and support of all, Catholic and non-Catholic, on behalf of Distributism. Although it is a fact that many are led toward Distributism by their interest in Catholic social thought, I am glad both for those who are attracted to Distributism because they see in it a humane and reasonable way of conducting our economic activity and for those who come to it out of a desire to permeate their thinking with Catholic principles. Both groups can work together to promote economic justice. This past fall we saw the Occupy Wall Street movement, the most outspoken voice on behalf of justice to be heard for many years. Distributists cannot but rejoice in this, even if most of the occupiers are not explicitly distributists or have never even heard of it. Capitalism has more and more revealed itself as the tool of the rich, Socialism has in practice become either totalitarian or simply another form of Capitalism (witness the recent “socialist” governments of Greece or Spain). Thus I think that Distributism has an opportunity to make itself better known and perhaps to become an intellectual force which can help shape our national life. The many practical means for promoting Distributism, from farmers’ markets to agricultural and craft cooperatives, offer something which can be done right now without seeking permission from any political or economic power.

So while the tradition of radical action may be foreign to many Catholics, we should see in Occupy Wall Street and similar protests allies or potential allies, people who recognize, even if not always clearly, the flaws of both Capitalism and Socialism and the need of a new way of organizing our economy. So let Catholics embrace their own heritage, and by so doing, they will find a surprising affinity with others whose message for economic justice is the best hope for transforming America that we have seen for years.

[1]. Communism and the Conscience of the West (Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill, c. 1948) pp. 16-17.

[2]. Radio Replies, vol. 2, p. 278  (St. Paul: Radio Replies, 1940).

[3]. In Protestant, Catholic, Jew: an Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2nd ed, 1960).


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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  1. Pingback: Catholics, Distributism and Occupy Wall Street | PAULitics.US – Wake Up America

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  3. As you say, Tom, we need to put our hierarchy of loves in the correct order–let us hope that process is underway for many American Catholics at this moment.


  5. The only thing to “rejoice” over in the OWS movement is an opportunity to introduce dissatisfied citizens to something new. Calling it a “voice on behalf of justice,” however, is ridiculous. I might take them seriously if they took a shower and didn’t defecate on police cars.

    Even then (I suppose miracles do happen), it would still be a huge crowd whining about college debt that each of them freely assumed in the first place, without bothering to take steps to remedy the problem afterward.

  6. Marion,

    I don’t think college debt is the only issue that OWS is protesting about. And I’m surprised that you can’t distinguish between their call for economic justice and any personal habits or behavior that some of them may have engaged in.

  7. Mr. Storck,

    Their “call for economic justice” is so vague and wildly disparate, one voice from every other, that it’s incomprehensible. Masses of intentionally unwashed humanity taking up space in public squares and treating police officers and public property with contempt or outright abuse does not earn my respect. This disorderly and oftentimes disgusting conduct, along with its obnoxiousness, is the only consistent thing about the whole “movement.” I acknowledge that there are big problems in our economic system, but the OWS people have contributed nothing to the conversation.

  8. I like how you pointed out here that the key is that Catholicism got co-opted by “conservatism”, then by GOP Republicanism. Since convervatism literally is a sin just as much as liberalism is a sin, Catholics should have been more alert and not took the bait, but as you said, the last 50 years have been a tsunami of confusion in the Church.

    Another thing I recently came to realize is that Capitalism is fundamentally a Protestant invention, particularly Calvinism. The general idea is that God blesses the ‘elect’, and in tangible ways like wealth. Thus wealth accumulation was a ‘sign’ of predestination. On top of this, Protestantism unconsciously decoupled morals from social life, leaving things like economics and the role of the state to run “independent” (which really wasn’t “independent” at all).

    The key to recovering Catholic identity is to make sharp distinctions between Catholicism and ‘others’, particularly Protestants. We do not have the same morality as Protestants, and this is precisely why abortion is still legal (since many Protestants either allow abortions or exceptions for abortion and all allow contraception, which is the root of abortion).
    One of the most unpopular and forgotten about Encyclicals is Testem Benevolentia, which condemns so called “Americanism” in various points, most notably these:

    “These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.”

    In absolute truth, a Christian (Catholic) is not “free” in the Enlightenment sense of “freedom” and “personal rights” – which teaches one should be able to do whatever they want (the bedrock of Austrian Economics and Liberalism).

  9. Nick, I can only wish that many more Catholics had the understanding that you have.

  10. Hello Mr Storck,

    I learned a lot from you and other writers here. Some of the more hard-hitting stuff also came from CultureWars magazine. Do you have a subscription to CultureWars, and if not would you like an E-Subscription?

  11. Hello Mr Storck,
    Do you sense any conflict between “Distributism” and “Subsidiarity?”

  12. Dean,

    I think distributism is a near perfect application of the principle of subsidiarity in that ownership would be set at the lowest level, i.e., the level closest to the one or ones who are actually doing the work, either by a single owner of a small concern, or, with a larger entity, joint ownership by the employees.
    Likewise, most regulation of the economy would be placed at the lowest level possible, in the guilds or occupational groups that would also exist in a fully distributist economy. Any additional regulation or coordination of the economy would be done with full participation of the guilds, e.g., they would be important voices in any governmental regulatory bodies. And these guilds, or course, would be democratically controlled by the owner/workers.

  13. I can find nothing positive to say about your article, your thoughts, the comments made or why you are on the ncregister.com. We do, very much, disagree. I just find it astounding that there is anyone in the U.S. that buys into any of your ideas. It makes me sad that there are so many of you out there with these distorted views, knowing there are so many opportunities available to you all for a better education. I will pray for your enlightenment as a group as one would pray for a lost soul. Come back to the church, please. There is darkness there outside of reason.

  14. I find this type of regression of economics frustrating. The notion that subsidiarity can run a worldwide economy of several billion people is facile. The basic presmise of free market economics is that at every point one person is engaging in commerce to the detriment of another. That gain is what propels individuals to invest their excess and that spurs economic growth. If distributism is anti-growth, that to me is a sin, as it precludes the human ability to improve himself and others around him. Given no self-beneficial motive, the system stops eventually. The real sin in our economic systems is intentional impediments, not organization. Governments by their nature reward those with whom they agree and the inverse is also true. The true economic liberty is a government that applies the rule of law equally. As to social conditions, there is gredd in all economic systems. How to vanquish greed? Certainly not with some pie in the sky notion that all will behave, because they certainly will not. Since not all will ever believe in Christian ethics, much less Catholic teaching, we should effort ourselves to making Catholic principles part of business and civics to the greatest extent possible. Pastors should advise their flock on moral and social teachings and children should be catechized properly in the Faith. Over time, this will have the greatest effect. The alternative notion of the re-distribution of other people’s property is to my mind a violation of both the natural law and Catholic teaching. That is what compassionate charity (a true virtue if ever there was one) is for. What is truly tragic (rather than just being ‘conservative’ is instead the millions of Americans who have no chance at a quality education becasue they are stuck in a broken system, and are as a result being ground into the dust by neglect or malfeasance. Fix that, and you’ll go a long way to changing the economic landscape.

  15. Mike,

    I’m not sure exactly what you’re objecting to in my article. When you say, “come back to the church,” have you yourself read any of the papal social encyclicals? If you have, what do you find in them which which does not agree with my article.


    Distributism is not anti-growth. As the population increases, certainly economic activity must keep pace with it. But all this must be subordinate to the common good of society and especially to our attainment of eternal life. Distributism does not assume that it can make human beings perfect, rather free market economics in a way does that, by saying that it can render the greed of individual humans productive for the common welfare. This is obvious nonsense, as a glance at history shows.

  16. Nick,

    Thanks for your offer of a Culture Wars subscription. I wrote a few times for its predecessor, Fidelity. But actually I read little online, only what is pretty much absolutely necessary, so probably I wouldn’t use it that much. But thanks very much for your generous offer.

    Tom Storck

  17. Edward Worthington II

    Marion Miner

    OWS has contributed to the discussion of economic justice. Occupy Harvard, for instance, protested for a more equal pay ratio between the head of the university’s endowment and the custodial staff. Another example is the movements call for a financial transaction tax.

    Regarding police being treated with contempt, I think the reverse is more true; look into how crackdown on Occupy Oakland was handled.

    Regardless of how one feels about the movement or the individuals involved in it, they did rekindle the conversation about economic justice.

  18. @Nick, your argument on Protestantism is fundamentally flawed. Adam Smith was a serious Calvinist and therefore argued against both usury and monopoly. His vision of a free market was much closer to Distributism than our current corporatacracy. Being ungenerous to Protestants is very bad politics for Distributists.

  19. Elizabeth,

    I’m by no means an expert on Adam Smith’s life, but I wonder if you’re correct in calling him “a serious Calvinist” – my impression is that his philosophical views were more of the watered-down Calvinism of people like Thomas Reid or Francis Hutchinson, and that he was more of a Deist than a Calvinist.

    But be that as it may, when you say that Smith’s “vision of a free market was much closer to Distributism than our current corporatacracy,” that may be true, but that isn’t saying much, for it was precisely Smith’s views on the magic of the invisible hand that has led to today’s situation. Distributism does not mean a free market in the usual sense of that term, i.e., free competition. It means widely distributed property which is protected so that it remains widely distributed. Does this infringe on our freedom? No more than traffic laws infringe on my freedom to drive at whatever speed I please or in any direction in any lane I please. This idea of freedom is not compatible with man’s social nature, which requires that the common good be sought above all.

  20. Edward Worthington II


    Serious Calvinists support usury. Calvin himself allowed for a fixed rate of five percent on loans.

    Regarding Nick’s comments about Capitalism and Calvinism, what’s uncouth about them? If it causes a Calvinist to examine their views, it would be an act of charity.

  21. Hi Elizabeth,

    Along with the other good comments just made, I would add that often what was advocated in favor of ‘economic liberalism’ was not always fully realized back then. For example, though Protestants have always favored divorce (contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture), it was only the last 50 years or so when this “freedom” was fully “actuated” and half of all marriages end in divorce. Before then, while it was ok in theory, there was still a social taboo about it. So even if Smith was closer earlier on to Distributism, those theories were at their very root poisonous, and would someday come to full ‘actualization’ (e.g. Mises).

    And it’s undeniable that Calvinists sought tangible ‘blessings’ as signs of God’s favor, including amassing of wealth. Calvinism has only flourished in relatively well off societies. This is precisely why when the Colonianlists came to America they quickly sought to exterminate the natives. The natives were seen as an inferior race and that God had delivered this land to the Calvinists. Notice this stark contrast with the Catholic American territories, where the populations to this day is darker skinned with native american complexions – because the Catholics sought to convert them, with extermination being a mortal sin (except for a few sinful generals here and there) and contrary to the Great Commission. (NB: The Squanto who arranged for the first Thanksgiving was a Catholic; enslaved by Puritans, freed by Franciscans.)

    See this quote from Manifest Destiny, heading Themes and Influences:

    Quote: “The origin of the first theme, later known as American Exceptionalism, was often traced to America’s Puritan heritage, particularly John Winthrop’s famous “City upon a Hill” sermon of 1630, in which he called for the establishment of a virtuous community that would be a shining example to the Old World.”

    As I noted earlier, the other side of the issue is the fact Protestantism divorced morality from civil affairs, effectively letting economics run “free” (even if it took some time before people were honest enough to admit “free” meant modern day “freedom”, e.g. pornography publishing).

    It is crucial that you don’t take this as a personal attack, because it’s not. The problem is that today people don’t realize Liberalism is the *legitimate* child of the Protestant heresy (known today as “Conservatism”), and instead people equate Liberalism as a neutral but flawed alternative to “Conservative values”.

  22. Elizabeth,
    For an in-depth examination on the relationship between Protestantism and Capitalism, I recommend George O’Brien’s “An Essay on the Economic Effects of the Reformation”