Thursday, April 23, 2009

Economic Policy and the Church

Sean Hannity has a tiresome shtick that he does every Thursday on his radio show. He sends a staffer out to find people on the streets of New York that he can interview on the radio. He typically sets the politically ignorant saps up for what he considers the knockout punch. He quotes from Karl Marx "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need"), and, if they agree with the statement, he slams them as a Marxist and a socialist.

I don't like listening to it, and I change the radio dial away from his show every Thursday. I write this as an advocate of what Michael Novak calls Democratic Capitalism (for which he recently provided a defense in First Things). Socialism and Marxism, as economic policies, simply do not provide the best conditions for economic growth that benefits all of the members of a free society.

Just once, though, I would like somebody to throw Acts 4:32-35 at Mr. Hannity:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold, and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.

On the surface, it sounds like the very early Church was socialist. The ideals of renunciation of personal property and communal ownership can work on small scales when the community is united in faith. Monastic life under the Rule of St. Benedict provides for a framework in which this has been shown to be successful. However, different models are required when the community grows larger or becomes more diverse in beliefs.

When St. Paul was evangelizing the Gentiles, he certainly didn't tell them that becoming Christian meant giving everything they owned to the Church. The Church, in fact, does not advocate for any particular economic system, although papal social teaching has defended private property rights and condemned both atheistic communism and pure capitalism. Communism was tried and failed with dreadful human cost. Pure capitalism (driven only by market forces without any government intervention or regulation) does not exist.

As Christians, we are called to be stewards of the things that God has entrusted to us and to live our lives with a degree of detachment from material things. The point of Acts is that the early Christians placed a higher priority on providing for the needs of the poor than on maintaining their material wealth. Today's Christians are called to keep the same priority.

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