Is the Church biased against capitalism?

The Catholic Church is accused of many things. But are we anti-business in our attitudes and outlook? Are we unfriendly to the nation's core economic system?

On two occasions this past summer we went to Sunday Mass in a foreign land (Rhode Island) and heard sermons which were strikingly hostile to business. They dealt with the dangers of wealth and the hardening of our hearts toward the poor. Fair enough, but we were left with the lingering question: Is the Church giving the faithful a balanced and realistic view of business and economics?

A successful businessman or businesswoman must often feel reviled in church. The petitions from the altar ask for prayers that business owners be fair to their workers and provide them with a living wage. No mention is made of bureaucracy-bloating politicians and self-serving union officials. These are hard economic times and many business owners and executives are, along with their workers, struggling. Maybe we Catholics just don't understand economics.

In universities, which should understand and where we have spent years, you could cut the hostility to business with a knife. Capitalism, usually preceded with an adjective like "rapacious," was the handy "explainer" for the great majority of social ills. How many undergraduates have come home from their first semester at college and scorned their parents as heartless capitalists or "in the pay of the Man."

Our colleges and universities are a great national resource. But, let's face it, they are filled with adults who have never had to meet a payroll and never had sleepless nights worrying how to achieve a positive balance on "the bottom line" or go out of business.

Years ago we were filled with the anti-capitalist rhetoric of universities. But observing our neighbors led us to discover that the small businessman was the one who quietly left the block barbecue when the child of someone in his office developed a health problem. Or today she is the one who can't stop worrying and anguishing about having to lay-off a worker whose drinking problem is endangering others on the factory floor.

Our secular media is riddled with attacks on business. All the while it reports that consumer spending is the golden goose of further economic recovery. Hollywood, one of our nation's most suspect businesses, has made fortunes bashing business. Most recently, we have the return of "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" and its "greed is good" theme. The wildly popular series, "Mad Men," paints a picture of the corrupt and licentious 1960s world in advertising. But are these portrayals of business accurate?

Some 20 years ago, Catholic thinker Michael Novak presented the Church and the world a different picture. He argued that our system is not a tooth and claw, unfettered capitalism, but what he labeled "democratic capitalism." Our system is one of natural liberty and forms the basis of free association. It is an economic system that taps human creativity and initiative and produces virtuous people. Further, he suggests it reinforces habits consistent with Catholic tradition. Successful businesses have a value system that is not oriented entirely toward profits. Businesses generally have an ethic that pervades the company.

Novak, who became a close advisor to Pope John Paul II, thinks theologians have been critical of capitalism because many Catholic social teachings were formed in the pre-capitalist medieval society. At that time political and social stability were highly prized. Papal teachings were more concerned with just redistribution of available goods than with the morality of systems that produced new wealth. Echoes continue through the centuries.

In Novak's view, democratic capitalism depends on a culture characterized by inventiveness, discovery, cooperative effort, initiative, adaptability, generosity and experimentation. All these qualities are consistent with the Christian life.

There is little doubt that capitalism, like any system, can be perverted and lead to anti-human ends. Its dynamic drives need to be permeated with Christ's message that we are all of one family. Class envy accounts for some of the antipathy toward the business world. The way to defeat envy toward the haves is through economic growth and open access. And the "haves" must, as Christ continually directed, reach out to the "have-nots."

Still, care must be taken to make sure assistance programs which temporarily aid the poor do not lure the able-bodied into dependency. The old adage survives today because of its kernel of truth. Give a man a fish and he can eat; teach him how to fish and he can feed himself and others.

Novak argues that capitalism rightly understood is not only compatible with Catholic social teaching, but is also the strongest force for liberation the world has ever known.

Capitalism permeated with Christian love is still the last great hope. A vibrant economy puts bread on the table and a chicken in every pot. So let's show compassion toward businesses, toward the men and women who are taking the risks, creating the jobs and doing the Lord's work in the marketplace.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited "Why I Am Still a Catholic" [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.