Listening to talking heads on the TV worry about the financial rescue package, I heard some rhetoric that sacralized the Capitalist system. It was as if God was on the side of the free-market. Beginning with the words of Jesus about selling all your possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor (Mt. 19:21), continuing with the Apostolic Church that held all things in common (Acts 2:44-45), blossoming with the vow of common life in medieval monasteries, and coming of age with the papal encyclicals — blind defense of Capitalism is not in Catholicism’s DNA.
I would not say that a political prescription for today’s financial troubles is to be found in any particular verse of scripture. But the spirit of Catholicism is to prefer people over profits. It stands in contrast to what Max Weber saw as the Protestant economic ethic which – he insisted – favored Capitalism. Surely, Protestantism and Catholicism do not fit into the tight boxes designed for them by Weber, but there is a strain of Catholicism that is aggressively anti-Capitalist, most notably, the Catholic Worker Movement.
I see elements of this anti-Capitalist Catholic tendency in the life and works of St. Francis of Assisi Forget the plaster statue Franciscan in the garden or the parade of pets being blessed on October 4th: these don’t do justice to the radical evangelical calling of Francis. He lived (1182-1226) during troubled times of the early Middle Ages as cities and commercial trade had begun to displace feudalism, preparing for the enthronement of Capitalism some five hundred years later. The quickening of social life in Italian cities in those days foreshadowed a Renaissance of art, science and culture, but it also created the new phenomenon of urban poverty. The poor had always been a part of medieval Europe, but mostly as serfs toiling the land. Often, the paternalism inherent in the lord-peasant relationship had softened the harshness of hunger and famine. However, those desperately seeking work by trickling into the cities of the 12th Century when Francis lived were not so protected.
Radical problems demand radical solutions. Francis renounced all the trappings of his merchant-class birth, wearing only a roughly-spun smock tied at the waist with a rope. He swore not to touch money. He lived by begging for food which was to be given to the poor — making himself one of the needy. He was convinced that only the example of those who put no stock at all in material possessions could combat the growing consumerism of his age, with the attendant greed and corruption that trailed along. The Franciscans were not the only Christians rebelling against the growing division of classes (e.g. the Waldensians). However, others were prone not only to preach against the excesses of those in power, but also to question if the sacraments could be validly conferred by sinners. Francis avoided this conclusion by focusing on the behavior of individual Christians, rather than issues of the institution. He instructed his followers: “Preach the Gospel at all times and — when necessary — use words.”
Francis of Assisi remains a model for Evangelical Catholics. Yes, his rejection of incipient Capitalism during the Middle Ages was soon rendered impossible because feudalism was doomed. However, Franciscan spirituality has endured through the centuries and still inspires us. Catholic America today imitates Francis’ emphasis on human interactions with the poor. You do not minister to the poor merely by writing a check. In my parish of St. Luke’s, for example, young people journey to a poor village in El Salvador to live out their Catholic commitment of social justice. “In giving, we receive,” is the premise that animates this hands-on charity. (Many Protestants do the same, e.g. Habitat for Humanity, which is another proof that Weber was inaccurate.) Francis of Assisi’s Evangelical Catholicism understood the Gospel call to put people before profits. It is a faith-rooted spirituality that overflows into the Catholic view of political and social issues like health care, housing, welfare, social security and the entire web of life. These days of financial turmoil invite us to revisit the anti-Capitalism of the Evangelical Catholic message of Francis of Assisi.
See also: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/catholicamerica/2008/09/only_bad_capitalists_go_to_hea.html).