Liberty and the Virtue of Prudence: A Catholic Perspective

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"The ethos of [Catholic colleges and universities] is so drenched in capitalism as to lead one to conclude, in darker moments, that the shepherding being done at these schools is the kind that raises sheep not for the Church, but for the market. But, of course, resisting capitalism is a problem we face not only in our schools. It is a problem for everyone everywhere." (1) So said a rising Catholic theologian in a recent lecture at a major Catholic university.

"I would still like to see every rich person hanged from the nearest lamp post." (2) So responded a prominent Thomist ethicist (in a quasi-jocular manner) when asked what values, as a Catholic convert, he retains from his Marxist days.

"'Scrooge,' I teach my students. 'That's capitalism in a nutshell.'" So my friend, a Catholic professor of modern European history, informed me last summer.

Great strides have been taken in recent years by scholars and the Roman Catholic Church's magisterium toward differentiating authentic goods of the classical liberal tradition from stridently materialist and individualist strains of liberal theory. (3) Old habits die hard, however. For many orthodox Catholic thinkers, a free society--especially as it implies a free economy--remains a bugbear. (4) In this essay, I suggest introducing an element of Aristotelian or Thomistic prudence into the Catholic conversation about liberty, especially its economic element. I argue that it is not prudent today to attack what Michael Novak has helpfully termed democratic capitalism, and that the tradition of Catholic reflection on the virtue of prudence may be summoned to a contemporary defense of it.

First, I sketch two related areas of error in current Catholic objections to democratic capitalism: (1) the attack on capitalism as being condemnable as a "system" (much as socialism is condemnable as a system); and (2) the disregard for the virtue of prudence that is entailed in opposing free enterprise today. I then suggest how prudence itself, in our time, recommends free enterprise both in providing for needs and in fostering communities of virtue. I conclude by drawing illustrations of my thesis from a novel that deservedly won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize.

On Capitalism As a "System"

My professor friend who identifies capitalism with the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge is part of a tradition epitomized by Amintore Fanfani, an Italian statesman earlier this century and significant voice in the Christian Democratic Party. Fanfani argued in Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (1935) that there is a "spirit" characterizing capitalism that makes it incompatible with Catholicism. The capitalist spirit, he wrote,

   is that attitude adopted by a man towards the problems of wealth,
   its acquisition and use, when he holds that wealth is simply a
   means for the unlimited, individualistic and utilitarian
   satisfaction of all possible human needs. A man governed by this
   spirit will, in acquiring wealth, choose the most effectual means
   among such as are lawful, and will use them without any anxiety to
   keep the result within certain limits. In the use of wealth he will
   seek individualistic enjoyment; to the acquisition and enjoyment of
   goods he will recognize one limit only--hedonistic satiety. (5)

"Fanfani describes the capitalist," comments Michael Novak, "as if he were a tightfisted Scrooge, a miser, a possessive, crotchety, asocial individual." (6)

Even Dickens's Scrooge, though, represents not capitalism but the vice of avarice. Avarice is coeval with man, and thus not identifiable with an economic system. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's redemption does not come through a disavowal of the economy within which he labors, nor does it come through a change of occupation. His redemption comes through a change of heart. Fanfani's portrayal of the spirit of capitalism is likewise a portrayal of a complex of vices. …