The Table MonsterHonoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy is a cycle of novels which deals with eternal moral problems in the specific context of post-revolutionary French society, primarily that of the Restoration and July Monarchy eras (1814-1848). In Cousine Bette, one of the most brilliant of its constituent parts, the author recounts the story of a monstrously evil woman who brings about the ruin of all the members of the extended family at whose table she dines each day. An especially pathetic tone is lent to the tale from the fact that this malicious demon, who sets to her task with the raw material offered her through the vices and failings of her clueless victims, is admired and even revered by them as beneficence personified. She eventually dies in the odor of sanctity, mourned by those whose lives she has made miserable.
Everyone involved in active social life—namely, all of us--would do well to digest the lessons taught in Cousine Bette. For no community, whether it be the family living next door to the devastated hearth so chillingly described by Balzac, or the universal society of men the world over, is guaranteed protection from such irritants and the outrages that they perpetrate. The Table Monster--the beast spoiling the festive dinner party while being entertained as one of its most welcomed guests--can make its entry anywhere and anytime. Give it merely a molehill of a vice or an inadequacy and it can turn it into a real weapon of mass destruction.
We Catholics form a spiritual and natural community--the Mystical Body of Christ--that dines together regularly at a complex feast of life prepared for us by the sacrifice of our Savior and the achievements of Christendom over the ages. Innumerable pests have barged into this festive meal in the course of the entire history of the Church, working upon our own peculiar vices and failings. Never have there been so many of them at large at one and the same moment as today. Some have actually had the decency to inform us openly of their hostility, thereby inviting us forthrightly to screw up the virtue and courage to show them unceremoniously to the door. Others have become true Table Monsters, remaining astoundingly undetected as the consequences of their destructiveness pile up. Like Cousine Bette, these latter scourges twist their daggers into the wounds that they either aggravate or themselves directly inflict, while we continue to laud them as our friends and benefactors.
One such beast—in my book, the most dangerous, because it actually delivers enough of the seductive goods that it offers to give its message a certain plausibility--is capitalism. This pest began elbowing its way into the feast of Christendom some centuries ago, but in an honest fashion, candidly proclaiming its enmity. It is extremely important to note from the outset that that enmity did not arise from any specific anger over the Church’s attitude towards private property or a market economy, which orthodox Catholic theology accepted as either a positive good or a practical necessity or as one of those changeable factors of history, as indifferent to religion as the precise form of a people’s government. Rather, capitalist antagonism was the inevitable and more general result of its reflection of the ideology of Enlightenment naturalism, and in close alliance with the political program of nineteenth century European liberalism. Enlightenment naturalism called for the construction of individual, political and social life upon the observable laws of nature alone; laws whose scientific character rational man was obliged to accept, and supernatural religion humbly to accommodate. Nineteenth century liberalism was pleased with that "moderate" application of Enlightenment naturalism in the Revolution of the period 1789-1792 which had guaranteed the victory of the French bourgeoisie. In contrast, it was terrified by the counterproductive demagoguery of the following Reign of Terror, and correspondingly convinced that the best means of attaining "nature’s" concrete victory over a superstitious world was in as bloodless a manner as possible. Capitalism expressed the Enlightenment’s iron clad natural laws in the economic sphere, and liberalism’s belief in the superiority of peaceful change through its commitment to a non-violent Industrial Revolution. The fortunes created by the investment of bourgeois capital in industrialization were used to support the liberal "party" that worked for the triumph of naturalism in all realms of life, economic and non-economic alike. No Enlightenment naturalism, no capitalism and liberalism. No capitalism, no practical liberalism. No liberalism, no political support for conditions favoring capitalism. This was a truth known to every political and social observer of the early 1800’s.
Capitalist-Catholic problems of the Cousine Bette sort were born of an innate flaw in Enlightenment naturalism, one that was already noticeable in intellectual circles by the 1750’s. Enlightened philosophers, all proclaiming the absolute rule of the self same world of nature, had even then reached the point of observing numerous contradictory, "airtight" laws of the universe, and debating one another ferociously over their conflicting scientific demands. Many thinking liberals, by the 1840’s and 1850’s, had become painfully aware of this long-standing intellectual dilemma and begun to examine more closely the variety of hostile "natural laws" that they somehow had managed simultaneously to support. One could have wished that they had thrown up their hands and admitted that their first principle of constructing a world on the basis of natural observation alone might have been erroneous. Instead, they simply opted for "staying the course", and following the logic of one of the "natural laws" that they espoused at the expense of all the others. Liberalism imploded. One faction moved towards support for the "natural" human equality that liberals had theoretically espoused and partly attained in legal matters, but which now seemed much more likely to be fully realized through the Socialist Movement. Most of the rank and file of Bourgeois Liberaldom, however, remained firmly committed to the "natural" economic laws of the free market and a concern for a peaceful transformation of the world through their application.
Fearful of the consequences of socialist activism, which seemed to strike at the peace necessary for all progress as well as the rights of property that they identified as an essential part of a natural society, this latter group began to feel terribly uncomfortable with its earlier historical record of association even with less disruptive revolutionary leftism. It wanted a new pedigree, one that disassociated itself from all violence whatsoever. Following in the footsteps of moderate revolutionaries of the 1790’s, it gradually sought to co-opt the use of the words "conservative" and even "rightist" to describe itself. A Specter was indeed haunting Europe, it argued, one that only a new, all-inclusive Party of Order could combat. Thus began a frantic hunt to join together "rightist" and "conservative" allies of the most disparate character, all of whom would be expected to suppress their other differences in a grand fraternal campaign for the protection of the first and most important of all rights: the sacred rights of property.
Statesmen of capitalist persuasion recognized Catholicism, with its concern for private property, as a likely candidate for friendship, and opened negotiations for an Entente Cordiale with the Roman Church. In seeking an alliance with Catholics, the "conservatively" enlightened were calling for a crusade in favor of scientific, "natural" laws as observed by capitalists, over and against scientific, "natural" laws as observed by "the Reds". But there was a steep price that had to be paid by the faithful in return for constructing this coalition of the willing. They were expected to admit that critiques of capitalism were either much ado about nothing or rationally erroneous. More importantly still, they were called upon to recognize that a God horrified by socialist materialism and covetousness had undoubtedly bestowed His blessing upon the opposing capitalist army, rendering criticism of the economic principles written on its banners nothing less than war against Heaven itself. In other words, the sealing of the Entente Cordiale entailed admitting that capitalism had "got religion" and become a Catholic blood brother. Everything more radical than capitalism was, of course, to be rejected as unacceptably demagogic; everything hostile to it as either silly and expendable, or socialist and ungodly. Anyone reminding the capitalists that they, too, had their hands stained by involvement in the anti-Catholic persecution of the "calmer" period of the French Revolution was to be purged as a useless, divisive, historical carper playing into the hands of the common Red enemy. One had to let bygones be bygones. "Capitalism-Enlightenment Naturalism-Liberalism-Conservatism-Catholic!", one might imagine a coalition orator declaiming, while preparing the marching orders for the newly allied forces; "Now and forever! One and inseparable!" With that mantra, the career of the new Table Monster, which would prove to work splendidly upon Catholic vices and failings, big and small, commenced. That beast has supped in many of the faithful’s dining rooms in the last one hundred sixty years, and in a myriad of specific incarnations. Its most recent avatar has been that of conservative Republicanism, the Homeland Shi’a, which persistently demands recognition not only as the credo of the American branch of the Party of Order, but, more importantly, as the orthodox faith of the one and only global Party of God.
The tarring and feathering owed to this capitalist Cousine Bette is, alas, far too much to hope for under current circumstances. Most practicing Catholics, between 1848 and the 1960’s, gradually accepted the conditions of the Entente Cordiale, and took them closely to heart. Its ground rules were embraced even more lovingly once the faithful swallowed the argument that a failure to obey the dictates of the Absolute Market would inevitably lead to the universal establishment of both grinding poverty and gruesome Communist dictatorships, Destitute Gulag Harbor being the only remaining port of call should the ship of life reject a permanent docking at Unlimited Profit Bay. Their reception was smoothed still more effectively in God’s Country by the influence of that powerful American Protestant equation of salvation and capitalism, promoted by rack after rack of bargain paperback books, sold in place of phony indulgences to open the door to the easy attainment of divine grace. By now, Catholics are so used to offering the Absolute Market a hearty welcome into the very center of the Christian feast, that they provide it free cocktails at the bar and a place at the head table to lead the spiritual meditation at the conclusion of dinner. Catholics line up after dinner to have their missals autographed with the motto of the capitalist beast: "L’Etat, c’est moi, l’Eglise, c’est moi!" In many circles, the tiniest squeak of anti-capitalist rhetoric is treated as rank heresy. That there even is such a body of thought as critical Catholic Social Doctrine at all is something that appears to be an historical oddity remembered only by a few curiosity seekers, who have added it to their collection of other crackpot countercultural memorabilia.
But let me now turn to an examination of the ravages of the capitalist Table Monster in and of themselves. In doing so, I wish to rely, as I often have in the past, on what I consider to be the telling arguments of the many Italian, German, and French Catholic writers who recognized their potential dining partner for what it was when it first launched its seductive overtures to the Church over a century and a half ago. These sources, among them the extremely influential editors of the Roman Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, and the theologians and teachers in the entourage of Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler of Mainz, have also been totally forgotten by most educated Catholics. Such forgetfulness has badly impoverished us. Their analysis formed an essential part of a general critique of Enlightenment naturalism which was effective in short circuiting the efforts of the various militants of the Party of Order to seduce the Church in the 1850’s and 1860’s, giving birth to the Syllabus of Errors of 1864, Vatican I (1870), and the writings of Pope Leo XIII on political and social questions to counteract them. Moreover, it demonstrates that the conservative Enlightenment capitalist played the same game in economics that liberal Enlightenment thinkers did in their varied attempts to exempt other "obvious", scientifically-confirmed, "natural truths" from the control of a supposedly obscurantist Magisterium. If these nineteenth century writers had been remembered, and their lessons heeded, Catholics might not have become the Capitalist Tools that they generally are today. Neither would they have attempted the dialogue and aggiornamento of the 1960’s, which would have been recognized for what it is: a process exactly analogous to the efforts at building an Entente Cordiale over a hundred years earlier, and plagued by precisely the same type of problems.
Now the basic flaw that these nineteenth century sources identified in capitalism, the Enlightenment that brought it to life, and the conservative liberalism that maintained it is precisely a gross failure on the part of all of their different supporters to understand what they most passionately claim to represent: nature. Their observation of the natural world around them is an incomplete one; an examination that does not take into account the permanent natural influence of the Catholic God. Yes, it is true that knowledge of the Trinity and its powers can only come from a supernatural faith. Nevertheless, the provenance of that knowledge does not alter its ultimate earthly effect: the fact that it gives a deeper and truer insight into the real character of nature than does a wisdom coming from scientific tools operating on their own; the fact that the consequences of the application of this insight can be naturally observed. Yes, nature and the supernatural are different, but their clinical separation is an impossibility, since nature is itself, from the very outset, a supernatural gift. The Creator made and saved it. All of its specific elements have a unique dignity and role in the Divine Plan, but only faith can show what that dignity is and what it is not; what that role involves and what it does not. Moreover, only faith and grace can give man the courage truly to accept the dignity and role of nature and natural tools, working on the spirits of men to labor actively with them and plumb them for their full value. Without the faith, philosophy and science have historically been the stuff of parlor sports, practically influential only insofar as they have been used by the rhetorician to aid the cause of the strong man and the triumph of his will.
What is it that Catholic Faith tells the natural economic order regarding its character? It mission is not that of pontificating on nuts-and-bolts specifics, which is why there have been legitimate debates concerning what Catholics should and should not do in this or that particular economic situation in order to remain true to Christ. But such precise information is not the most crucial for human life. It would indeed be practically useful for a couple marrying in the tropics on an especially hot and humid day to know how to swat flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Most of their time that day would, after all, be taken up with such activity. Nevertheless, the admonitions given to them by the priest in the midst of their immediate physical torture would be infinitely more important not just for life as such, but for the organization of the events of the torrid wedding day itself. If it were all arranged to deal with fly swatting it would not be worth having it. It is this more elevated existential and moral information which our supernatural faith imparts for the guidance of all realms of life, the economic realm included, and it must always be of primary importance, even when very useful specific guidance comes from other sources.
Now the Faith teaches us that we are the star performers in the drama of life; that we have been given an exalted mission in a natural world unnaturally marred by our own sin, and yet open to glorification should we freely cooperate with the redeeming, supernatural grace of God, activated in charity and self-sacrifice. Catholicism emphasizes the eternal, supernatural significance of every one of our free, charitable, self-sacrificial, grace-filled actions in nature, and the necessity of calling upon all earthly tools, in their proper place, executing their appropriate role, in order to help us to fulfill our mission. It reveals the fact that primary among the natural instruments that we are summoned to utilize is a myriad of different natural societies, beginning with the family. The authority and camaraderie to be found therein, modeled on that of the the supreme, supernatural community of the Mystical Body of Christ, are essential to propelling the individual towards the completion of God’s plan. All of this has major consequences in economics, as well as in every other realm.
An economic order shaped by Enlightenment naturalism operates in a completely different perspective. Such a system does not recognize a supernatural God’s inevitable daily influence on the natural universe that He Himself created and redeemed. It lives with the consequences of a "Judgment of Solomon" in which reality is cut into two, with the dependent part expected to function smoothly separate from the its superior spiritual engine. Unfortunately, the nature that thus "makes believe" that it is separated from its God cannot properly know its own purpose accurately. The human beings guiding it fail to see where it is headed, and inevitably make crucial mistakes regarding its meaning and use. Consistent naturalist thinkers are inevitably led to some form or another of materialist reductionism—this is why capitalist and Marxist theorists are closely related. Individual flaws or specific social and personal influences contribute to this reductionism in a myriad of different manners. Some analysts observe and work with man’s individual characteristics alone, others merely his social attributes. Certain economists dream utopian dreams based upon man’s extraordinary potential, forgetting the destructive reality of sin; their opposites see nothing but sinful tendencies shaping humanity and disdain his more exalted capabilities. All such crippled economic observations help to build an unwholesome, diseased society promoting illness rather than health, which they insist that "natural" man must be changed to accommodate.
Worst of all is the "scientific" arrogance that has always accompanied these reductionist economic positions, turning them, precisely, into what we call ideologies, shut off from all criticism. The supernatural wisdom that would be a problelm for them is rejected from the outset as pointless. Natural or historical critiques are dismissed as a violation of common sense proving the unnatural character of the man proferring them. Ridule or pity are the only response on the part of a sane individual. Besides, they are a waste of time, interferring with the obvious true work of men, making money. Within this context, anything goes. Everything good that exists is attributed to its influence, always discussed, theoretically, in the best possible light and with the highest of possible motives. Everything bad is the product of the opposition, always discussed in its most vulgar skin, in the light of practical life. True Capitalism just has not yet been implemented! The continued influence of past exalted ideas allows for capitalism to be described in its social context, the idea of profit being identified as the least possible motive for capitalist action; all others, however, only act from such base motives. The good that is saved is illogically saved, like the goods saved by a heretic.
Let us, just for a moment, conceed to the capitalist apologist his claim merely to present scientific laws of the economic order that every rational human being must accept. This claim still begs the question of the proper ordering and coordination of complicated human lives and polities, which need to respond to the demands of many laws, the hierarchy of values. There are laws for the healthy maintenance of the body; laws governing responsibilities to helpless dependents. One ought not to insist upon a visit to the the gym for the exercise unquestionably necessary for the proper functioning of the heart if his baby has died and he will miss the funeral. At its best, capitalism is guilty of just such an error. It takes a valuable element of life—individual propery and its use—and, by turning it into an "ism", raises it above many other, higher values. It mistakes, as any materialism does, an omnipresent set of needs for the most important ones, and then works hard, intellectually, to protect itself from the spiritual embarrassment that this causes. It creates a habitus of treating these more importantly than any others, and the proof is in the record. Machtpolitik does the same, as the Count di Cavour publically boasted in nineteenth century Italy, while ravaging the Pope and the Church as a whole. Our friends recognized the similarity of the two. It is taking Original Sin as a scientific fact and then turning it into a system.
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