Capitalism and Colossians

It is an old truism that there is Tradition and there are traditions. Catholic apologist types typically illustrate this by showing clear examples of Big-T Tradition (the Creed or the canon of Scripture) vs. small-t traditions such as, say, birthday cakes, Thanksgiving turkeys, or Super Bowl beer. All of these are human traditions, and none is particularly sinister. And, of course, such traditions are a mere fraction of the many other traditions that order and shape our lives and our culture in a beneficial way, without being mistaken for divine revelation.

That’s a useful illustration, but it has a limitation — namely, it does not address why, if tradition is so harmless, the Scriptures do indeed warn us to “see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Is it that people in New Testament times were 2,000 years stupider than we and so were natural suckers, confusing human things with divine things? Or might it be that the warning against elevating tradition to the status of Tradition is still a live one today?

I am put in mind of this by two things I noticed on the Internet recently. The first is Rod Dreher’s discussion of the enduring myth that Big Business is “conservative” (by which naive conservative Christians often assume “basically an ally of the gospel against Culture of Death liberalism”). The second is this dramatic — indeed, graphic and “Not Safe for Work” — illustration of the utter folly of believing that myth, brought to you by the solid Big Business Capitalists at Miller Brewing. (By the way, we can’t say we weren’t warned, given that this blasphemous parody of the Last Supper was the main advertising image for what Miller proudly advertised as the “world’s largest Leather Event.”)

It is faith in Capitalism or Democracy or the Little Guy or the Everlastingness of England or Holy Mother Russia or the American Way or the Divine Right of Kings or Your Favorite Political or Philosophical System — not faith in birthday candles, mistletoe, or turkey — that is the subject of Paul’s warning about conflating human tradition with Tradition. In each age, there are things that a people hold as “sacred” which are, in fact, merely almost sacred but are not integral to the Holy Apostolic Faith. The Constitution and the American Way of Life are almost sacred things. And so the temptation becomes very strong to assume that these very good things are holy things.

Accordingly, some people develop the absurd notion that ardent capitalists necessarily care about their religious values. The bottlers of Miller Light are sending such people a message: “Get real.”

MoneyThe only thing we know for certain about an ardent capitalist is that he cares about making a lot of money. Beyond that, all bets are off. And since, as Uncle Screwtape observed long ago, a man with a sexual obsession is a man with very little sales resistance, there is a very good likelihood that the ardent capitalist will not necessarily be motivated by any particular interest in gospel values. The notion that capitalism is somehow necessarily and inevitably a friend of Jesus Christ is one of the greatest American delusions of the past century.

That doesn’t make capitalism evil. It makes it a “philosophy according to human tradition” and no necessary part of the Faith. Harnessed to the service of the human person like fire in a fireplace, it can be a very good thing indeed. Capitalism is a human system that works, as democracy does, by allowing humans to practice virtue while (sort of) restraining the effects of the Fall in the economic sphere, as democracy (sort of) restrains the effects of the Fall in the political sphere. It works tolerably well, just so long as competition remains in stasis and one entity does not acquire a monopoly and destroy the competition.

But it has no special interest in morals. If a capitalist entity can get away with making a large profit by the promotion of sin (as capitalist entities have done since the dawn of time), it will. If there is a large enough outcry against a capitalist-sponsored outrage, the capitalist will, like Miller, back off. If not, the capitalist will continue the proud sponsorship. And there is no limit on how much culturally-acceptable sin the capitalist will capitalize upon except this: If the sin destroys the culture, then the capitalist goes up in flames along with the rest of the general conflagration. When capitalism begins to behave in this way, it mutates from a reasonably beneficial organism in the body of humanity into a toxic bacteria that destroys its host. In the link above, we see mutated capitalism toiling to destroy the culture and bring on the conflagration for the sake of a buck. What ended the sponsorship was not a sudden outburst of moral concern from Miller, but “market forces” (meaning the residuum of sane people in American culture who have not yet learnt from their PC catechism that Gay Culture is the source and summit of all that is noble, good, beautiful and true).

Capitalism, like democracy, can only work as long as it exists in a (relatively) virtuous people. And people derive virtue from God, not from capitalism. Like democracy, capitalism works because it is a system that presumes original sin. When we abandon God (and therefore stop presuming original sin), we only “free” avarice in the sense that a maniac “frees” the fire from the fireplace and allows it to pursue its interests in the rest of the house. Untether capitalism from a Judeo-Christian culture, and even our virtues become vices. Seek first the earth and you lose not just Heaven but earthly things as well.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • poustinik

    Twenty years ago we thought of Communism as the greatest evil of the 20th Century. Clearly the devil’s hand was behind all the death and misery it left in its wake. But, as much as he revels in such things, I believe Satan had an much more diabolical motive behind it. Because it was so undeniably evil, we assumed that whatever was the opposite to Communism must be, at least in some measure, righteous. The result was that we enshrined and canonized Capitalism. As we can see today, that serves Satan’s purposes far better than Communism ever could. Communism could destroy lives, but with Capitalism, we are lining up to sell our souls.

  • mbecher

    It’s a good point that people have a tendency to view their pet traditions & ideologies as “sacred.” However, I think it’s important to remember that the Church has actually spoken about capitalism, communism, etc., in the social encyclicals. As I understand these encyclicals, they vigorously defend private property as the best way for fallen humans to handle material goods. Private property (& private enterprise) is the cornerstone of “private capitalism,” the economist’s term for what most simply call “capitalism.” Of course, these encyclicals also speak of the rights of the worker, and of the government’s obligation and limited right to protect the individual from abusive capitalism. In short, while capitalism is indeed not a “necessary part of the Faith,” I think that this article seems to ignore the fact that the Church hasn’t been silent on the issue.

  • Dave

    I start off by stating the obvious … human traditions aren’t sacred. Not sure anyone is challenging that. Nor is capitalism evil. It’s agnostic to this point. But what I firmly believe is free enterprise is the fairest, and most balanced economic “ism” for mankind. Wrap this around democracy and free speech .. and you have a model that if allowed to work (read minimize gov’t meddling, dont’ abolish gov’t), can not only provide the means for society to succeed, but bring greater peace to the world (trading partnes rarely begin wars), and adjust to societies ups and downs more efficiently and effectively than “central planning”. But I disagree with some of Mark’s capitalistic conclusions …. those same evils that he points to can and do exist without capitalism. I’m a dreaded capitalist, though I’m far from rich … and money is not my sole motivation. When practiced within a free enterprise landscape, corrections .. checks and balances … are more readily available.

  • mrteachersir

    A couple of points:

    1) Adam Smith’s discussion of capitalism inferred that the entrepreneur would seek to help society out (a virtue) by fulfilling a need in the most efficient way possible. Obviously this isn’t happening today. If all entrepreneurs thought of this, the business climate would change. I work for a retailer, and our manager has attempted to instill an attitude in the associates that we are providing a service for the customer. This has truly changed the way some of the associates have viewed their work. If the money-makers also viewed this, perhaps wages would be the first thing to cut when times got rough. As Uncle Screwtape suggested, changing the mere idea about something (in this cases capitalism is about making money, not freely providing a need) the entire system becomes pleasing to Satan.

    2) The prologue to teh film version of the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring points out that what men desire is power. This is why socialism is so devestating, and why we are leaning toward socialism. Barack Obama was questioned about the high price of gas…he commented that it wasn’t high enough (to discourage energy consumption), and that what was needed was government enforced redistribution of wealth.