This week the first reading at Mass is concerned with the life of the early Christian community. One of the key aspects Luke wishes to highlight is how the first Christian Church handled money:
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common…
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:32, 34-35)
The first thing I think of when I hear this reading is “detachment.” None of the first Christians considered their personal possessions so important that they could not give them away if another needed them more. Nothing came before the good of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Barnabas even sells what appears to be a sizable property in order to help the poor in the Church (Acts 4:36-37). Can we in the American Church honestly read this passage and not feel condemned?
Of course this passage also has significant political implications. Many, especially after the 19th century, have tried to use it to justify communism and/or socialism. And frankly, there is some support for a communal economical model in this passage. Monasteries and convents have had a long history of living under a communal model in which no one owns any personal property. Yet when this model was tried on a large scale and forced upon a populace, the results were devastating.
Yet I don’t think we can therefore declare that the most prominent 20th century alternative to communism, free-market capitalism, is perfect. I do believe the free-market system has many benefits to a society, but the past few decades have proven that it does not work under an immoral people any more than a communist system works under an immoral government. And when I say it “does not work” I do not mean that the economic model doesn’t accomplish what it is supposed to, but instead I mean that people are directed away from their ultimate goal: holiness. An economic model which simply promotes the accumulation of stuff is clearly not an ideal one.
A benefit to free-market economies is that they accept the reality of the Fall. Everyone is naturally self-centered, and the capitalism recognizes that. However, it also is true that, at least in America, capitalism can evolve to its logical conclusion: consumerism, in which each person’s self-centeredness is not just acknowledged, but encouraged and preyed upon. Capitalism, like all economic models, can only work if the people in the society restrain their lower impulses to some degree and put the good of others ahead of their own good. Like the first Christians did.