Jesus, Michael Moore, and Capitalism

FATHER ROBERT BARRON

I’ll admit that I wasn’t going to see Michael Moore’s new movie Capitalism: A Love Story; but then a student of mine at the seminary drew my attention to a debate between Moore and the right-wing commentator Sean Hannity that was posted on YouTube.

I was expecting the usual liberal-conservative disagreements, but very 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 the previous Sunday. Hannity responded in the affirmative, and Moore asked him whether 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, and I went to see the movie.

The film is fairly typical example of the Michael Moore style: funny, irreverent, broad-brush, and unabashedly left-wing. But what indeed struck me as unique to this film were the explicit appeals to Christianity and to Jesus personally. Moore interviewed a number of Catholic clergymen, including retired Detroit auxiliary bishop Thomas Gumbleton, 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 simply co-opts Jesus as a spokesman for contemporary political and economic arrangements agreeable to conservatives.

Now to give Michael Moore his due, there are elements of the Catholic social teaching tradition, which stretches back to Jesus and the Old Testament prophets that support his point of view. In Rerum Novarum, the great text that inaugurated modern Catholic social doctrine, Pope 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 soul, it will cause a good deal of spiritual and moral discomfort. He furthermore sternly warns the wealthy that their salvation will, to some 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 that they needed the poor in order to avoid going to Hell! More to it, all of the Popes who have written on social matters, from Leo to Benedict XVI, have insisted that the government has a moral obligation to regulate the economy when gross injustices mar the system. In the measure, therefore, that the recent economic collapse was precipitated by an irresponsible deregulation of the financial markets, Michael Moore is right to raise an authentically Catholic voice in protest against it.

Does this mean that he has Catholic teaching on his side when he says, as he does throughout his film, that capitalism is simply "evil?" No. If there is one theme that runs consistently through Catholic social thought, from the late nineteenth 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 freedom, but also practically constitute an economic system that brings the greatest material benefits to the greatest number. About half-way through his film, Michael Moore shows that he is not only a critic of capitalism but is 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 Catholic Church has consistently condemned socialist and Communist solutions to economic injustice, quite rightly seeing such approaches as not only notoriously inefficient but also deeply offensive to the dignity and liberty of the individual. If one harbors any doubts as to the Popes' rectitude on this matter, he need only consult those particularly brutal expressions of radical socialism in the last century.

Does this mean that he has Catholic teaching on his side when he says, as he does throughout his film, that capitalism is simply "evil?" No. If there is one theme that runs consistently through Catholic social thought, from the late nineteenth century till today, it is that fundamental elements of a market economy are morally praiseworthy.

So where does a Catholic stand in regard to capitalism, the market economy which has brought so many benefits to humanity and which, at the same time, can give rise to great injustice? One of the best summary statements of Catholic teaching on capitalism can be found in John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, written, as the title suggests, on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. John Paul says that the church is in favor of capitalism if we mean by that term "an economic system which recognizes the positive role of business, the market, private property…as well as free human creativity in the economic sector." But, he continues, 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.

I really did enjoy some of the humor and righteous indignation of Moore's film, but if you want to know what the Catholic Church would say about contemporary economics, save the money you would have spent on Michael Moore's movie and buy Centesimus Annus.




 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Robert Barron, "Jesus, Michael Moore, and Capitalism." Word on Fire (November 3, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of Father Robert Barron.

THE AUTHOR

Fr. Robert Barron was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1986. He has a Masters degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. He is currently professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary. Fr. Barron is the author of, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals, Eucharist (Catholic Spirituality for Adults), Priority of Christ, The: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, and Word on File: Proclaiming the Power of Christ. He also gives frequent talks, retreats and workshops on issues of theology and spirituality.

Father Barron uses his YouTube channel to reach out to people and bring valuable lessons of faith alive by pointing out things that can be learned by watching popular characters of movies and television shows.

Copyright © 2009 Father Robert Barron




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