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What Is Capitalism Good For?

By Dr. Kyle Williams

The way that we understand the relationship between Christian faith and work life and consumer culture is deeply unsettled. Can the sacred and the secular be brought back together? Should they be? Given at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, this series of talks examines the relationship between Christianity and economic life by giving an introduction to the tradition of catholic social teaching. It raises basic yet serious questions about religion and society, such as: Is religious faith primarily a private experience or can it have public dimensions as well? What does it mean to be free? What is true human happiness? What is the relationship between the Church and the world? And, what does the idea of a Christian economy of gift mean for our everyday lives?

Dr. Kyle Edward Williams is senior editor of The Hedgehog Review. His forthcoming book is Taming the Octopus: The Century-Long Battle Over the Soul of the Corporation.

Quotes and Bibliography from the talks:

“When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is only meaningful when it the ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world.”—Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. “For Christians, economic life, like all other aspects of life, must be formed from within the liberation effected by God in Jesus Christ. The basic form for a Christian’s approach to economic life is given in the love archetypically revealed in Jesus and in turn through Mary—and thus through the marian fiat and magnificat…a spirituality characterized by gratitude and thanksgiving; by humility and wonder; by an affirmation of life, of the intrinsic worth—beauty, goodness, and truth—of all things (because created by God); by a disposition of service toward and solidarity with others. In a word, a self formed in the fiat and the magnificat is a self whose disposition of grateful receiving informs all of its doing, having, and making—a self that recognizes that it is, strictly, never the owner of its being and acting.”—David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church. “The earthly [city] has made for herself, according to her heart's desire, false gods out of any sources at all, even out of human beings, that she might adore them with sacrifices. The heavenly one, on the other hand, living like a wayfarer in this world, makes no false gods for herself. On the contrary, she herself is made by the true God that she may be herself a true sacrifice to Him.”—St. Augustine, The City of God, XVIII.54. “Christ’s resurrection created a new world; it marks the beginning of a fresh age and has set up on earth a type of existence which is absolutely novel.” Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church.

“The consumer is protected from coercion by the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal; the seller is protected from coercion by the consumer because of other consumers to whom she can sell; the employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of the other employers for whom he can work, and so on. And the market does this impersonally and without centralized authority.”—Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom. “It is this recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position. This view does not, of course, exclude the recognition of social ends, or rather of a coincidence of individual ends…In fact, people are most likely to agree on common action where the common end is not an ultimate end to them, but a means capable of serving a great variety of purposes.”—Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. “Yet had I been alone I would not have done it—I remember well my state of mind to be thus at the time—alone I never would have done it. Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it. Does it follow that I loved something other than the theft? No, nothing else in reality because association with the gang is also a nothing.”—St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions. “It is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good, and this applies not only to such matters as what we shall purchase or how we shall live. In even our gravest political and ethical debates—regarding economic policy, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, censorship, genetic engineering, and so on—‘choice’ is a principle not only frequently invoked, by one side or by both, but often seeming to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.”—David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions. “Any economic practices, such as focusing on maximizing profits, that invite us to subordinate human goods to lower goods move us away from the happiness that is possible in this life. So too would any habits of thought that invite us to think of happiness as a matter of extension—whether of material goods of experience. Such habits of thought undermine efforts to bring some sort of unity to life.”—Mary Hirschfeld, Aquinas and the Market.

Selected Bibliography

Patristic/Medieval St. Augustine, City of God. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Particularly the Second Part). St. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty (Popular Patristics Series). St. Basil of Caesarea, On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series). Historical Transformations of Economic Life John Lauritz Larson, The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good. Louis Hyman, Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits, and Job Security. Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising. Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Theological A.G. Herbert, ed., The Parish Communion. LS Thornton, The Common Life in the Body of Christ. E.L. Mascall, Christian, the Church, and the Church. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church. Mary L. Hirschfeld, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy. William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Encyclicals Leo XII, Rerum Novarum (Of New Things). Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (The Fortieth Year). John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year). Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). Distributism John C. Medaille, Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More. Hillaire Belloc, The Servile State. G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With the World Allan C. Carlson, Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies—And Why They Disappeared.

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