Joseph Schumpeter’s name is not commonly associated with Catholic social teaching, nor is much said about the economist’s views of corporatism, that is, the organization of society around interest groups and their duly appointed representatives. In a 1981 article for the History of Political Economy, “Schumpeter’s Corporatist Views: Links Among His Social Theory, Quadragesimo Anno, and Moral Reform,” Dale Cramer and Charles Leathers tease out Schumpeter’s apparently positive appraisal of corporatism as an alternative to the metamorphoses of capitalism into socialism. In doing so, Cramer and Leathers provide evidence of Schumpeter’s affinities with Pope Pius XI’s landmark encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (QA), and the Catholic corporatist tradition as a whole. Though Schumpeter never dedicated concentrated attention to the topic, two speeches delivered in the 1940s, including a 1945 address given in (still Catholic) Montreal, reveal Schumpeter’s belief in a corporatist possibility, albeit one predicated upon an ill-defined “moral reform.” As Cramer and Leathers point out, it’s not entirely clear that Schumpter was directly attached to Catholic thought or that his idea of moral reform mapped perfectly well onto the principles enumerated in QA. Even so, Schumpter’s thinking on corporatism reveals an awareness of the ethic component of economic reform, one lost in the minds of many Catholics who, for various reasons, seem to believe that capitalism is both inevitable and desirable.
That Catholics who claim fidelity to economic liberalism (a blanket term I will use in this post to cover everything from neoliberalism to more radical forms of libertarianism) struggle to square their ideological preference with QA is evidenced by how rarely they invoke Pius XI’s encyclical. And when it is invoked, it is typically done only to prove that the Church’s social magisterium has no room for socialism (or at least a certain type of socialism). Pius XI does not mince words about liberalism either, particularly the rationalistic-individualistic brand which, by the early 20th C., dominated a great deal of Western socio-economic thinking. Nowhere does QA, or any other modern social encyclical, give credence to the view that economic liberalism, with its exaggerated belief in the market process as the means to social stability and prosperity, is a proper orientation for Catholics to adopt, and yet considerable resources are directed toward squaring the tenets of this typical of liberalism with the magisterium. Why?
Several possibilities readily present themselves. The first—and perhaps most conspiratorial—is that moneyed interests have an understandable desire to see an institution as longstanding, vast, and seemingly influential as the Catholic Church endorse the production-consumption society without regard to larger questions of justice, right, and the common good. Second, Catholics themselves, now enjoying the apparent fruits of capitalism, don’t want to lose their meal tickets; a Church that stands against the way they make money and live their lives is a gross inconvenience and must be reformed or, possibly, resisted. And last, Catholics (and particularly non-Catholics) have lost faith that moral reform at the social level is even possible. Whether Catholics lost faith with this view before or after the middle of the 20th C. is open to debate. Did liberalism—not just economic, but political and religious as well—become so dominant in the minds of otherwise faithful Catholics and the hierarchy that surrender appeared as the only sensible possibility? Or did the attempt to make peace with modern liberalism, which required disarming the Church in pluralistic, liberal-democratic societies, yield the loss of faith in the Church’s power to transform the hearts and minds of men on anything but a very limited, extremely personal and highly subjective, scale?
Answering those questions, or even choosing from one of the aforementioned possibilities (to say nothing of other possibilities not here enunciated), is less important than facing up to the reality that many Catholics, and even the Church’s leadership, have lost their way with respect to how society, particularly economic society, must be (re)organized. Positive economic theories and the schools that promote them come and go. Old theories that fail basic empirical testing are modified (or not), though too many stick around in the form of calcified ideological maxims. The proper moral bases of a just economic society, however, remain firm. The question that confronts faithful Catholics today is whether or not they will choose to plant their feet on that firm ground or continue to wade in the swamp of modern capitalism, hoping to secure a tight enough hold on a branch, or place their feet on other men’s heads, to keep themselves from going under.