THINKING ABOUT FILM Fr Robert Barron Capitalism: A Love Story
12A CERT, 127 MINS
I’ll admit that I wasn’t going to see Michael Moore’s new movie Capitalism: A Love Story, but then a student drew my attention to a debate between Moore and the Right-wing commentator Sean Hannity posted on YouTube. I was expecting the usual liberal-conservative disagreements, but early in the discussion Moore surprised me by asking Hannity whether he was Christian. When Hannity replied that he was a Catholic, Moore wondered whether he had been to Mass that Sunday. Hannity responded in the affirmative, and Moore asked him if he had paid attention to the Gospel, which included the line: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” I had vaguely remembered that Moore was a Catholic, but I hadn’t suspected that his Christianity figured at all in his political ruminations. My interest was piqued.
The film is typical of the Michael Moore style: funny, irreverent, broad brush, and unabashedly Left-wing. But what struck me as unique to this film were the explicit appeals to
Christianity. Moore interviewed a number of Catholic clergymen, all of whom said some version of the following: capitalism is sinful and contrary to the teachings of Jesus. In a section that I admit made me laugh, Moore uses a number of scenes from Franco Zefferelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth, but he places in the mouth of the Lord various moral recommendations borrowed from the book of capitalist wisdom. He’s mocking, of course, the way in which the Christian Right sometimes co-opts Jesus as a spokesman for contemporary political and economic arrangements agreeable to conservatives.
Now, to give Moore his due, there are elements of the Catholic social teaching tradition, stretching back to
Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, that support this view. In Rerum Novarum, the great text that inaugurated modern Catholic social doctrine, Leo XIII comments that once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, everything else we own belongs to the poor. I submit to you that if you allow that statement to sink into your soul, it will cause a good deal of spiritual and moral discomfort. He furthermore sternly warns the wealthy that their salvation will, to a degree, depend upon their generosity to the poor. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago echoed Pope Leo when he said to a group of wealthy donors some years ago that the poor needed them for their temporal well-being
but they needed the poor to avoid going to Hell! All popes who have written on social matters have said the government has an obligation to regulate the economy when gross injustices mar the system.
Does this mean that Moore has Catholic teaching on his side when he says, as he does throughout his film, that capitalism is “evil?” No. If there is one theme that runs consistently through Catholic social thought, from the late 19th century till today, it is that fundamental elements of a market economy are morally praiseworthy. The popes are eminently clear that private property, the free market, entrepreneurship, and the profit motive are not only in line with human dignity and free
dom, but also constitute an economic system that brings the greatest material benefits to the greatest number. About halfway through his film, Moore shows he is not only a critic of capitalism but actually an unapologetic socialist, and as the credits roll we hear a rock version of the old Communist hymn “The Internationale”. Well, here he utterly departs from Catholic social teaching. From Leo XIII on, the Church has condemned socialist and Communist solutions to economic injustice, seeing such approaches as not only inefficient but also deeply offensive to the dignity and liberty of the individual.
So where does a Catholic stand in regard to capitalism? One of the best summary statements of Catholic teaching can be found in John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, written, as the title suggests, on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. John Paul says the Church is in favour of capitalism if we mean by that term “an economic system which recognises the positive role of business, the market, private property... as well as free human creativity in the economic sector”. But, he says, the Church stands against capitalism if by that word is meant “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework that places it at the service of human freedom in its totality”. It would be hard to improve on that statement for balance and clarity.
If you want to know what the Church says about contemporary economics, save the money you would have spent on Moore’s movie and buy Centesimus Annus instead.