On April 4th, Thomas Storck, Dr. Charles Clark, and Michael Novak participated in the conference “Catholicism and Economics,” a presentation and debate featuring three economic systems: capitalism, socialism, and distributism. They were tasked with presenting their positions, discussing their viability, and relating them to Catholic Social Teaching.
The conference commenced with a luncheon provided by the host and sponsor of the event, the Nassau Community College Center for Catholic Studies. Many familiar faces were in attendance including Tim Ehlen, Director of Building Catholic Communities, Fr. Ian Boyd and Dr. Dermot Quinn from The Chesterton Review, as well as author and Taki’s Mag contributor, Mr. James Kalb. John Médaille, Bill Powell, Ryan Grant, Jeremiah Bannister, our speaker Thomas Storck, and yours truly represented The Society for Distributism. Literature was available for sale by the Campus bookstore, including Thomas Storck’s “The Catholic Milieu” (Christendom Press) and Belloc’s “Economics for Helen” (IHS Press). Both virtually sold out by the time lunch was over.
180 people registered, but due to intense weather conditions in New York, we estimated somewhere in the vicinity of 120-130 arrived at the event. The numbers were impressive and we were delighted to see a full house. We must thank Dr. Joseph Varacalli, President of the Center for Catholic Studies, for the opportunity to not only debate Mr. Novak and Dr. Clark, but to expose the public to Distributism. This conference successfully exceeded our expectations and we owe Dr. Joseph Varacalli all our deepest thanks for inviting us to take part in it.
Dr. Joseph Varacalli was also kind enough to arrange a table for us to use throughout the conference. We mounted a colorful display with hundreds of our pamphlets (including a promo sheet for Distributist Review Press), our brochure, and a mailing list sign up sheet. Our readers may be excited to know dozens joined our mailing list and we barely had any material left once the event was over.
Attendees varied from layman to academic, so we couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to dig in and introduce Distributism to a large group of people who probably have never heard of it.
Following the initial tributes for Avery Cardinal Dulles, Msgr. Wrenn, and Fr. Neuhaus, the debate started with a half hour presentation by the three participants. Dr. Clark was the first to commence. Some of our readers are probably familiar with Dr. Charles Clark, who penned the Foreword to the IHS Press edition of Amintore Fanfani’s Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism. Dr. Clark is a Professor of Economics at St. John’s University. He opened up with the Democratic Socialist argument by offering a phenomenal attack on capitalism from a practical lens. Clark chastised capitalism for failing to provide workers with a family wage, for its profit seeking at the expense of labor, outsourced manufacturing, and debt enslavement. Clark did an excellent job and in one poignant part of his tit for tat with Michael Novak regarding our financial economy, Clark reminded us of John Médaille’s famous article, “Buy it up! Break it up! Fund it right!” where John argued for a government buyout of our financial institutions, so they could be broken into small businesses, and end the havoc wrought by corporations riding on the coattails of the public. My only critique of Dr. Clark’s presentation is that while he struck the first blow against the capitalist position, we didn’t entirely know how advocates of socialism planned to solve the problems capitalism wrought. From what we gathered, his argument highlighted an expected heightened role of the central government in our economic and social affairs, distant from Marxism and probably likened to a moderate Christian Socialist position.
I believe I share the same frustrations as my colleagues when I say I was very disappointed with Michael Novak’s presentation. Mr. Novak made no attempt to either define his position or to relate capitalism with Catholicism at all. Neither did he give any mention about our current crisis. He began by contrasting capitalism’s departure from a society in favor of stability and poverty relief to societies paving the way for wealth creation as a solution to massive poverty. In an attempt to minimize distributism, Mr. Novak claimed capitalism exemplified the widest distribution of goods and property, by oddly pointing to the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, allowed Americans within the 13 colonies to claim stakes of undeveloped land outside its borders. The Homestead Act was not only the antithesis of capitalism and a victory for government, but also a devastating exploitation of the Native American nations, which were driven off their lands by military forces.
Perhaps Novak’s harshest distinction between the three economic systems came in the form of an ethnocentric jab against Europeans. Comparing the United States to Europe, Mr. Novak claimed Europeans simply drank coffee in cafes and contrasted this with American ingenuity. Europeans enjoyed life, while Americans were the true innovators of the world. Considering Europe is arguably responsible for the bulk of our architecture, arts, sciences, education, and history, I found the comment rather strange.
In another baffling moment, Mr. Novak claimed trade unions were a staple of capitalism and not an association rallied against the abuses resulting from it!
Thomas Storck presented a precise definition of Distributism, its practicality as an economic model, and correspondence to Catholic Social Theory. Mr. Storck brilliantly began by focusing on the purpose of economic activity within the realities of our human use and need. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas Storck said, “…the appetite of natural riches is not infinite, because according to a set measure they satisfy nature; but the appetite of artificial riches is infinite, because it serves inordinate concupiscence…” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 2, a. 1 ad 3) Mr. Storck went on to define capitalism by separating it from its flat definition and repeating the definition offered by Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which described capitalism as the separation of ownership and work. Thomas Storck argued that recognizing this friction between ownership and production in a capitalist state, Distributism dispensed with this problem by making ownership and work one and the same. Thomas Storck also argued for capitalism’s clash with productive property and illustrated this particular point by stressing how laws such as eminent domain, capitalism’s obsession with money to the detriment of the human person, lack of innovation, and creation of artificial needs are in actuality enemies of true progress. Once Mr. Storck concluded his portion of the presentation period, we took a break, and I was quite pleased to see a line of people waiting to speak with him.
When Michael Novak took the opportunity to ask our speaker a set of questions, I was surprised to hear him openly state his sympathies with Distributism. Arguably, the question he posed to Mr. Storck regarding the feasibility of health care in a Distributist State might have appeared to him to be the Achilles Heel against the Distributist platform. But to his surprise, Mr. Storck proposed a solution. His favored the restoration of occupational groups (or creation of co-ops) within a Distributist State to operate, regulate, develop, and research in the medical -or any- large scale field. It was a sharp reply for those who have never heard of Distributism before or those unconvinced of its viability in large-scale markets. Mr. Storck concluded his answer by stating that guilds and cooperatives exemplify the limitless potential for the decentralization of large entities through the use of smaller firms as practiced by the automotive industry today.
Following the exchanges, Franciscan University’s Dr. Stephen Krason offered a fifteen-minute talk on Heinrich Pesch and Solidarism. Dr. Krason delivered a passionate lecture and we commend him for it given Solidarism’s brief allotted time. My only objection to his talk came from his perception of the masses as uninterested in working for themselves and preferring to work for others. While self-employment always comes with an elevated risk, employment today is a comparable risk. The problem as I see it, isn’t the lack of desire on the part of most people to own, the problem is the red tape. After all, I am sure Dr. Krason would agree with Pope Pius XI that man works best on that which is his own.
We lament time made it impossible for a “Question and Answer” period between the speakers and the audience. That said, we are grateful to the Center for Catholic Studies for all the time and work they invested in the debate, as well as the meticulous and considerate manner this conference was managed from the onset. Under Dr. Varacalli’s leadership this Center is proving to offer some of the finest events I have ever attended. When Dr. Varacalli asked us to participate I knew it would be successful and all of us jumped right in.
Special thanks must be given to Thomas Storck for his intelligence, gracious support, activist spirit, and the incredible precedent he has bestowed on all of us.
Also, we must thank fellow distributist Jeremiah Bannister for the fantastic photographs.
I know our readers are interested if a transcript, audio or video recording of this event will be available. Yes, the event was recorded. However, please bear with us as we are praying and hoping this recording will be accessible for all of you through our website. I will keep everyone informed through our email list when and if this becomes available.