Considering receptivity in rethinking economic structures

by Nicholas J. Healy

A number of Concourse articles have touched on two seemingly unrelated subjects: feminine receptivity and capitalism. Surprisingly, there may well be a connection, and a rather important one. I mean that the problems connected with capitalism could stem from the fact that ours has been a disproportionately “masculine” society—one with an inadequate appreciation of more properly “feminine” qualities, notably receptivity.

First, a brief historical comment is in order. For the better part of this century we have been preoccupied with the evils of communism. By comparison, capitalism not only seemed to be benign, but an intrinsic part of the more virtuous free world. Yet for upwards of a century before the 1917 Russian Revolution, it was the problems of capitalism that plagued much of the world. Child labor, monopoly power (often secured through improper political influence) and extremes of wealth and poverty were very real evils that spawned communism and its less aggressive cousin, socialism. In the West, the religious reservoir of Christendom ameliorated the worst of these abuses and thus staved off the Marxist threat.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant discrediting of state socialism, capitalism is seen by many as both victorious and the only practical alternative. Yet once again the inherent tendency of capitalism toward excesses is manifesting itself. Indeed, as the moral capital of the West suffers what may be its final exhaustion, the voices of “libertarians” can be heard calling for markets to be unfettered from religiously inspired restraints. Thus we see the spread of legalized gambling, pornography and, in a few areas, prostitution. From the Far East, the specter of child labor again haunts us.

However, as Regina Schmiedicke pointed out, the choice is not necessarily between laissez-faire capitalism and state socialism or even a “mixed” economy somehow balancing the two. Catholic distributists like Belloc and Chesterton warned us decades ago of the effects of consumerism and big business on the Catholic culture of the day. A similar conclusion was reached by a prominent German economist, Wilhelm Roepke. Although a Lutheran, Roepke was highly impressed with the social encyclicals of the popes. Like the Catholic distributists, he decried “bigness” in economic enterprise, whether private or government. He saw that small entrepreneurship, family farms, widespread ownership of land were all more consonant with and encouraging of the development of Christian culture; and that it was the uprooting of that culture that had led to the devastating tyrannies of communism and fascism.

Today in America we are experiencing a cultural collapse comparable to those which in the past have ushered in tyrannies elsewhere. The causes of that collapse may not yet be fully understood. Yet it does not seem unlikely that our economic system has contributed to it; a system which prizes (and rewards) efficiency, productivity and individual (economic) achievement over strong families, stable communities and religious worship.

What is to be done? A great deal could be accomplished by changing laws to encourage smaller-scaled enterprises. Perhaps this would slow down, if not reverse, our cultural decay. Yet encouraging a degree of “distributism” may not be enough. Perhaps it is time to go deeper; to reconsider our economic system in the light of a new understanding of the nature of man, and head the Holy Father’s recent exhortation for us to reconsider the role of woman.

Capitalism seems quintessentially masculine. It rewards initiative, aggressiveness, competitiveness and single-minded devotion to work. It is not a system which encourages or rewards receptivity, the divinely ordained role of “receiving and giving.” Of course, women can and do succeed in the market economy, but too often they are required to do so on “male” terms. At times, they seem to “succeed” by diminishing or subsuming their femininity. Thus, much of the debate on the role of women has centered on “rights” and “empowerment”; in effect, the opportunities to be given women in a “masculine” system.

Mary, as the role model par excellence, shows us that receptivity is the essential beginning for the Christian.1 Her fiat: “Be it done unto me according the Thy word,” led to her gift: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Opening to the Holy Spirit, she bore abundant fruit, and the graces she received she has lavished on the world in ever increasing measure.2

The saints too, show us how critical is this receptivity. Their conduct, while creative and efficacious, was always in response to prayer and self-denial. They always understood how little of what they accomplished was from their own resources and how much was grace working in their lives. The apostles, emptied and disconsolate at Pentecost, received the Spirit and became the men, who “turned the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6)

What if the Holy Father is suggesting that women ought to provide a perspective on the very nature and structures of our systems? What would an economic system be like if it emphasized and encouraged Marian receptivity? What if we put first not initiative, efficiency and productivity, but openness to God, family stability and security, the valuing of the human person, and true service to the poor? In Centissimus Annus, the Holy Father noted that ordering society to the Catholic vision of the common good may require “important changes in established lifestyles in the Capitalist countries.” Surely this suggests a more radical approach than merely tempering the abuses of capitalism. Surely we cannot cling uncritically to a system which, for all its marvelous generation of wealth, has undoubtedly helped bring us to the brink of cultural and spiritual ruin as a nation.

I could not begin to suggest the practicalities of a more feminine system based on Marian receptivity. I do suggest that it is fitting for Catholic intellectuals to reflect prayerfully and fearlessly on our economic and social arrangements. It may be that the answer does not lie in a new “system” at all. Perhaps, like most things Christian, it must begin with each of us having a changed heart and new eyes. Yet, if we trust God and His Word, we know that it is in giving that we receive, and it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

Mr. Healy (who is not related to the Michaels Healy mentioned on p.8) is Vice President for University Relations, and father of Concourse editors Kathleen van Schaijik and Mary Healy.

1 Jesus Himself was “receptive.” “The Son can do nothing on His own, but only what He see the Father doing ...” Jn 5:19. “I seek not my will, but the will of Him who sent me.” Jn 5:30. “...I do nothing on my own authority, but speak thus as the Father taught me.”

2 I am indebted for these ideas to Dr. David Schindler of the John Paul II Institute, Washington, D.C. In his recent book, Heart of the World, Center of the Church, and in articles in the journal Communio, Dr. Schindler has expounded in theological terms the concept of receptivity as being the heart of the human person.

issue cover

Related articles: