Should Michael Moore be named “Catholic of the Year”? Some people love his films and some hate them: but his newest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” provokes such passion on either side that — on that count alone — it becomes a tribute to his skill as filmmaker. Avoiding a film review here, let me offer reasons for considering “Capitalism” a special kind of Catholic achievement.
First, Moore places a favorable light on his lived Catholic experience and the trust he places in Catholic priests. At a time when Catholicism’s foes pounce on reports of pedophilia from the clergy or criticize single issue politics as reasons to denigrate the Church, Moore gives us good news. He lets his own pastor and priest friends come across as down-to-earth. They are unafraid of delivering a harsh judgment on the state of the economy or of showing solidarity with the working class. The bishops interviewed do not fit the stereotype of an ecclesiastical bureaucrat or a CEO anxious to protect his “brand.” I think this is the clergy commonly experienced day in and day out in most of Catholic America and is a welcome change from media-generated stereotypes.
Second, Moore puts a human face on the suffering caused by economic hardship. Numbers and statistics are at a minimum: instead, we see real people telling their personal stories about loss of a job, death from a lack of health insurance and the struggle to make ends meet. While partisan politics have crept into virtually every corner of public debate today, you know that the moral compass is working when Moore delivers body blows to Democrats and Republicans alike. At issue is what happens when Capitalism gets a free rein to place profits ahead of people.
I don’t know if Mr. Moore ever read Karl Mannheim‘s (1893-1947) treatment of ideology and utopia. That 20th-century sociologist stated that when people had solid hopes about changing society, they spoke in terms of utopia — meaning a better world. When hope of real change was impossible, they slipped back into defense of ideology. Put into the present debate about health care à la Moore, the difference between utopia and ideology goes like this.
Utopia: “I want to bring health-care reforms so that we don’t have 5 people dying each hour in the United States because they have no insurance.”
Ideology: “We have to prevent people from thinking that government can solve all problems.”
Ideology worries about the principle of things; utopia, — even when limited by practicalities — keeps the eye on real things. Moore’s film is filled with utopian hopes: ideology is spouted on the lips of those he ridicules.
Third, the picture’s upbeat message is based on several real successes, experienced by Moore. To his credit, he does not deny the prosperity brought to him and so many other working-class Americans by industrial capitalism that into the 1950s built auto plants, paid union wages and sustained the American Dream. But he documents how this industrial capitalism degenerated into financial capitalism – or laissez-faire capitalism – and became destructive of its own successes. It is this laissez-faire capitalism that is condemned in the papal encyclicals as fundamentally disordered (e.g. Laborem exercens #14) because of how it subverts God’s order that requires that the material goods of this earth benefit everyone. Lack of distributive justice makes a capitalistic economic structure sinful, and without using those words Moore’s images on screen drive home that message.
Finally, Moore’s alternative is not some pie-in-the-sky radicalism. He does not use the word “socialism” as his preferred solution. Instead he paints the conflict as one between capitalism or democracy. For Catholic Michael Moore, identifying capitalism as the only patriotic option for America is a form of idolatry. People are always more important than any “ism,” and “people power” is Democracy.
Admittedly, Moore’s style borders on buffoonery, but his message is nonetheless important. I admire the Catholic currents of social justice in this film. And just like the feast days of Halloween and All Saints Day follow each other in the calendar; maybe Michael Moore is “Clown of the Year” and “Catholic of the Year” at the same time.