Neither Capitalism nor Communism: Distributism 15 April 2014

Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly about economics and the ills of capitalism—but what alternative does the Catholic Church offer to the status quo?

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

These aggressive words against the free market and principles of capitalism come not from a left-leaning politician or Marxist economist, but the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis.

From the very moment of his election as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has made it clear that the poor are his priority and that he views riches with suspicion. This mission was made clearer with the publication of Evangelii Gaudium or The Joy of the Gospel. It is common for a new pope to publish an apostolic exhortation once they take office, to share with bishops, clergy and indeed lay members of the Church. Pope Francis’ exhortation is a powerfully-worded and accessible document that makes it clear he intends to move the Catholic Church from an academic doctrinal church of orthodoxy to one that is committed to pastoral care and social work.

The Pope’s attack on capitalism and his focus on the ‘structural causes of inequality’ have opened him up for critique, especially in the United States where socialism and Marxism are considered vices rather than virtues. US media outlets have repeatedly discussed the question of whether Pope Francis is a socialist, sometimes answering ‘yes’ with a heavy heart. The Pope is a difficult figure for America – his seemingly progressive religious views and critique of the free market are welcomed by the liberal left, yet he still holds on to the conservative religious values that resonate with the right wing and evangelic Christian churches.

In Europe and indeed South America, the Pope’s socialism is much less suspect and often very welcome in a political environment where even the right wing accept some socialist values.

But is the socialism versus capitalism dichotomy perhaps missing something more significant? And by focusing so much on Pope Francis as a reformer, is his deep connection to Church tradition being overlooked?

There is in fact a third economic model the Catholic Church has in its vast ranks of scholarship. It is neither socialist nor capitalist, which are argued by proponents of this third theory to be post-industrial aberrations to human norm. Instead, this model is based upon Catholic social teaching, the edicts of various popes and the experiences of successful and small local projects across Europe. It is called distributism.

They developed the economic theory of distributism together. Both relied heavily on the teachings of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI who, much like Pope Francis, talked at length of the social issues and poverty of their respective eras. Pope Leo XIII expanded much of the Catholic Church’s charitable projects, even establishing a bank that offered low interest loans to the poor. Pope Pius XI followed in his footsteps, and published writings that addressed the dangers of capitalism and socialism, and instead argued for the importance of private property, capital and the family unit as a means to create a fairer and more equal society.

Chesterton and Belloc collected these teachings and practices together, and outlined the theory of distributism.

 The theory was also heavily informed by the work of local credit unions, co-operatives and ‘friendly societies’ (organisations made up local members who collectively provided a basic welfare support to each other in times of crisis). The latter have seen a modern resurgence due to failing banks. When the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury vowed to wage war on Wonga, credit unions were his weapon of choice. Co-operative projects have also been growing, with food banks and ‘past-sell-by date’ supermarkets set up under co-operative principles to address needs of the poor. Friendly societies have largely been replaced by an extensive welfare support system in the UK, but similar models are in use across the globe where insurance or state welfare is unavailable, and thus communities must turn to one another for financial support.

So what are the principles of distributism, and what can it offer a 21st century economy?

The most principle tenet of distributism is the belief in the importance of property ownership. ‘Three acres and a cow’ was the slogan used by Chesterton to advocate the benefits of distributism. The argument was that owning land, or any profitable commodity, is the means that allows individuals financial autonomy. Socialism and capitalism, it was argued, did not reflect the way in which society was organised most naturally previous to the industrial revolution but instead created structures which concentrated ownership with either the state or the privileged few. Proponents of distributism argued that the Middle Ages, for all its imperfections, allowed much greater social mobility than either the capitalist or socialist model could offer. Thus to achieve true social mobility and eradicate social injustices, property ownership should be as widespread as possible – so that both pauper and prince can lay claim to land ownership. Thus emerged the term distributism, the belief that social equality stemmed from the ability to distribute land ownership as widely as possible.

Chesterton and Belloc believed that widespread property ownership could be achieved through local partnerships. They borrowed here an argument of Pope Pius XI who wrote that the tasks that can be completed by the individual should not be given to the collective (a distinctly anti-socialist statement) and likewise the tasks that can be completed by the local community should not be given to the wider corporation. Thus in almost every instance, distributism would argue that the needs of society and the individual should be met by the smallest group necessary. This naturally made distributists sceptical of monopolies but also favoured local credit unions over large private banks. Private banks were considered to have particular problems given their use of interest. The centrality of property ownership was not simply considered a pragmatic necessity, but a theological right that every human being has a share in the world and its bounties.

The economic model advocated by Chesterton and Belloc never quite gained traction. It was picked up by the Catholic Workers Movement, and many non-Catholics also referred to the principles as an alternative to socialism, but within the Church, it was regarded only as the interpretation of lay scholars on the teachings of the Pope.

Turning back to Pope Francis, his socialism can clearly be seen not as a sudden break in church tradition, but a continuation of the Church teachings on social justice that were espoused by countless popes prior.

Pope Francis’ critique of capitalism should also not be interpreted as support for socialism; rather the Pope has ample middle ground that has been carved out by Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI, as well as Chesterton and Belloc.

It is clear in the preaching of Pope Francis that his solution to global poverty is not about charity. Rather he has consistently spoken of the structures of poverty and inequality, especially in Evangelii Gaudium: –

“In this context we can understand Jesus’ command to his disciples: “You yourselves give them something to eat!” (Mk 6:37): it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.”

What we are to see from Pope Francis will not be a simple call to help the poor, nor simply an attack on the systems that he believes perpetuate poverty, but also an articulation of a genuine solution – a way forward. The theory and model of distributism, rooted as it is in church doctrine, will likely be the solution.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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