Let’s not sacrifice Catholic teachings on the altar of capitalism (COMMENTARY)

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The entrance sign to Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland, United States.

Photo courtesy of Guoguo12 via Wikimedia Commons

The entrance sign to Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland, United States.

(RNS) How could 50 percent of Florida Catholics vote for Donald Trump?

One major part of the story is how Christians have blurred the lines between what God asks of us and what the idols of capitalism ask. For many Christians, Trump’s appeal is that he “gets” the need to “run things like a business.”

But Catholic convert and intellectual G.K. Chesterton said capitalism “destroyed the family in the modern world.” In addition to breaking up households and encouraging divorce, he wrote, capitalism “has driven men from their homes to look for jobs” and “forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families.”

It is difficult to escape the blanket coverage of Pope Francis’ capitalist critique. He rarely passes up the opportunity to undress our “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Such a system, Francis says, not only reduces the human person to a creature of consumption, but it produces exclusion and inequality that can kill those on the margins.

This basic position is nothing new. Pope Benedict XVI strongly criticized capitalism for not protecting the weakest members of society. St. John Paul II, while rejecting “Marxist collectivism,” insisted that Catholic doctrine is critical of “liberal capitalism.” This is so deeply embedded in Catholic teaching that even ultratraditionalist groups such as Church Militant give stinging rebukes of capitalism.

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The entrance sign to Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland, United States.

Photo courtesy of Guoguo12 via Wikimedia Commons

The entrance sign to Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.

One of the most pernicious practices these idols demand of us is short-term thinking. In “the business world,” after all, what will happen after the next quarterly earnings report is far more important than what will happen after the next quarter-century. For a Catholic Church that “thinks in centuries,” this is obviously problematic.

Especially for Catholic education.

Recall the recent scandal surrounding the president of Mount St. Mary’s University, the United States’ second-oldest Catholic university, in Emmitsburg, Md. A board of directors largely comfortable with the idols of capitalism brought in Simon Newman to bring reform. Armed with an MBA from Stanford and background in private equity, Newman energetically dove into his goals of helping “the Mount” move up the secular rankings of U.S. News & World Report.

In an effort to improve “freshmen retention” numbers, he designed a survey to oust struggling first-year students and get them to leave the school early.

One might think Catholic institutions have a fundamental commitment to aid vulnerable students, but Newman had a different view: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Newman also reportedly hid the university’s Catholic identity to appeal to more customers. In addition to criticizing the number of crucifixes and “Catholic jihadis” on campus, he scrubbed the main webpage of references to its Catholic heritage.

According to the rules and goals from the business world, this strategy was likely to work in the short run. But in other contexts, we’ve seen this short-term approach lead to long-term disaster. Many schools — including most of the Ivy League — have sacrificed their original theological mission and values at the altar of capitalism.

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And the problem is not only in Catholic higher education. Having taught theology in a Catholic high school that was competing with better-funded (and free) public schools, I know firsthand the pressure Catholic schools are under.

There is an understandable temptation to bring in “business-minded” consultants, but again, this kind of short-term thinking is a bad mistake.

Diocesan decisions to close Catholic schools can be devastating for local Catholic communities. While financial consultants may be able to show short-term benefits for consolidating low-enrollment schools — as is happening all over my state of New Jersey — the long-term consequences have been (and will continue to be) devastating for the church.

The elementary school is often the lifeblood of the parish community, bringing together children, parents and other parish members in a common set of goals, practices and events. It is also the best way to keep the community together and pass on the faith to new generations. The loss of the parish school often signals the death spiral of the parish itself.

Remarkably, I’ve had parents from a local parish in New Jersey explain that they were refused even the opportunity to raise money to save their school. What disastrously shortsighted thinking.

Happily, the binary “capitalism vs. socialism” debate is not long for this world. Millennials don’t trust big businesses or big governments and are looking for something else to believe in.

From distributivism to the economy of communion to a recovery of guilds, the Catholic intellectual tradition has exciting alternatives that may help shape the next great movement in economics.

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Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

But leaving aside the question of global impact, Catholic leaders should at least have enough confidence to use our tradition as the basis for thinking about how to reform our institutions. There is no need to sell out to capitalism’s destructive view of the human person and of history.

Especially in this Easter season, there is a much better and more beautiful story to tell.

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University)

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  • Pat

    It would be well worth noting, regarding Mt St. Mary’s University, that there was a groundswell of protest from students, faculty and alumni like my son, as well as parents who made it clear no one was happy with the direction Mr. Newman was leading the university. In the end we won, Mr. Newman resigned, and Mt. St. Mary’s University will remain an unabashedly Catholic institution of higher learning. So much for the influence of capitalism.

  • Ignatius Myosurus

    Wonderful article. Thanks for saying some things that need to be said.

  • Colleen

    Thank you, Pat, for including this information. The author did not finish the story.
    My daughter is a sophomore at Mount St. Mary’s (and loves it!) and was happy when Newman resigned. Thank God the Mount values and Catholic traditions will continue. It’s an excellent school with a wonderful 200-year history of Catholic education. #mountpride

  • It is nice to hear that today’s young are considering alternatives to the binary “capitalism vs. socialism” debates.

  • Mark

    Calling Church Militant “ultratraditionalist” is like calling Obama a Maoist.

  • Greg

    This is a pretty slanted view of Newman, who had the support of 3 in 4 students at the height of the controversy, according to the student government’s own survey – http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/26255/

    You can say they are infected by capitalism too, but don’t pretend that his ouster was a victory for students. His point, made inartfully, was that colleges shouldn’t load crushing debt onto students who were likely to flail before dropping out. Whoever replaces him will probably happily take the money of students too naive to realize they won’t succeed because nobody cared enough to be honest with them. This generation needs brutal honesty, not more coddlers. Jesus wasn’t a coddler.

  • Greg

    There was no “groundswell” from students, as the Chronicle makes clear – http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/beleaguered-mount-st-marys-president-still-has-the-support-of-most-students/108637

    Faculty hated him and he became a media sideshow. Get your facts straight.

  • John Stefanyszyn

    What is the mother of capitalism?…It is the spirit of FREEDOM.
    Man is sacrificing everything on the “altar of FREEDOM”.
    & this SAME FREEDOM, as a ‘god of fortresses’, dictates it right for each to worship any god.
    Whom did the Lord Jesus, Son of the Only God, say to worship?
    Very soon the Lord Jesus will return to rule the earth as the One King according to the Will & Good of His Father the Creator and NOT according to man’s first love for ‘his freedom’ to define ‘good&evil’, to serve & magnify oneself.

  • yoh

    The author is notorious for heavily slanted articles. The man has no pretension of honest objective reporting on a subject.

  • Yet another diatribe against the evils of captialism, this time making its argument through highly selective quotes from Chesterton and sensational quotes from a university president fired for offensive remarks. Your concern for the future of education is admirable. Your belief that what is needed is a focus on changes that take centuries, like the church does, is difficult to fathom.

    The Catholic tradition has much to offer to an honest and balanced conversation about how we best advance the common good and ensure that free markets serve it. Distributism is one. Solidarity, subsidiarity and fostering the sacred role of entrepreneurs in the ongoing co-creation the world are better examples in my view.

    Saving Catholic elementary schools and helping them produce principaled Christian high schoolers who can also serve the common good is a worthy objective. I worry far more about the damage from worshipping at the altar of tenured educators than the altar of liberal capitalism

  • Mariam

    Thank you Professor Camosy for a well-written and worthy article. Let those who have ears listen. Dioceses are spending more and more on Church beautification and comfortable living for the clergy than on small town catholic schools that are dying in numbers. They have completely given up on them and shuffling the students to ‘regional’ schools in order to sustain themselves. What would Jesus do?