Is the church becoming a chaplain of capitalism?

Clear-eyed theologians and economists are warning us about the effects of late capitalism on the church.
Peace & Justice

If you suffer from high blood pressure, read Walt Bogdanich and Mike Forsythe’s When McKinsey Comes to Town (Doubleday) with caution and in small doses. The authors (one of whom, Walt Bogdanich, was a professor of mine at Columbia Journalism School) uncover a sometimes bloody, often distressing tale of shareholders’ blatant greed for profits being met at the cost of workers’ livelihood and customers’ lives.

Bogdanich and Forsythe’s book begins with the birth of McKinsey & Company at the dawn of late capitalism. (Late capitalism, to be clear, is defined as an economy where not only material resources are commodified for consumption—like steel and plastic—but also cultural artifacts and personal lives.) The contract struck between workers and management during the Wagner Act in 1935—and, in the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, between United Auto Workers and General Motors—fell apart in the 1980s when the weakening of unions, plus offshoring jobs and manufacturing, all coincided with the rise of consulting firms like McKinsey.

“If God were to remake the world, he would call upon McKinsey for assistance,” wrote a Science journalist in 1967. God may have demurred, but global commerce, pulling itself back together after World War II, certainly rang up the firm. The rise of the management class meant that workers, instead of being valued and their labor and livelihoods respected, became interchangeable, expendable parts, with a target on their backs for instant downsizing. After all, the fewer salaries, health insurance, and other benefits the company paid, the more money “C-Suite” executives could make. Bogdanich and Forsythe detail in painstaking chapter after chapter what the cost was to ordinary women and men when the social contract between employer and employee was severed.

Bogdanich and Forsythe lead readers through a grim museum of death and disaster: deaths at Disneyland and U.S. Steel when maintenance costs were “downsized”; millions in taxpayer money soaked up by unfairly won government contracts; gutted Medicaid programs, leaving many in poverty with substandard medical care; and McKinsey’s enmeshment with the Saudi Kingdom and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. McKinsey, which makes millions in health care contracts, nearly tanked the passing of the Affordable Care Act in 2011. As of this writing, McKinsey has paid out at least $949 million in settlements related to its role in consulting with Purdue Pharma and its part in “turbocharging” the opioid crisis.


All this was done using the jargon of MBA gurus, the corporate patois. It fell under McKinsey’s so-called goal to “observe high ethical standards,” delivered via the consultant’s lingua franca: the slide deck.

One of the book’s sources, Garrison Lovely, was the anonymous whistleblower who worked on McKinsey’s project with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Lovely later wrote an essay in the September 2023 issue of the Nation describing his work for McKinsey at Rikers Prison and with ICE. He notes that ICE staff found McKinsey’s advice “so extreme” that it made them uncomfortable. Consultants advised cruelty. “Nothing short of a full de-McKinsey-fication of society will change the fact that, no matter what damage the firm does, its brand benefits the people who work there,” he writes.

Catholics are often not sure if their faith calls them to any economic action beyond giving a tithe to their parish. We are seldom taught from pulpit or pen that our faith calls us to shape an economy—from the Greek word oikonomia, which means household management—in any sphere beyond sexual ethics. But, in case you are still unsure if a financial system of pursuing profit and increasing dividends for shareholders at the expense of the dignity and livelihood of the worker is antithetical to the Catholic faith, the following authors make clear that it is.

The pressure to assimilate into the new CEO-robber-baron version of management is great. Still, clear-eyed theologians and economists have been warning Catholics about the effects of late capitalism on the church. In their 2002 book, Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business Is Buying the Church (Wipf and Stock), theologian Michael L. Budde and philosopher Robert W. Brimlow create the arresting image of the church as a “chaplain to capitalism,” comparing the church’s compromises and service of the state to the debilitating role of a chaplain in the army. Christianity, the authors say, was once valued for producing America’s “model citizens,” but now it defers not just to the state but also to the corporations upon which the state relies. As a result, civic religion is valued now not for making a model citizen but for making a model consumer.


Sociologist Robert Bellah penned a landmark essay on “civil religion” in 1967 that envisioned American religion—not just Christianity—as a domesticizing force upon citizens. Mathew Guest in Neoliberal Religion (Bloomsbury) notes that the rise of Christian nationalism has complexified that view, as Christianity is employed for certain—sometimes violent—political ends.

Guest, a professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom, offers excellent insights into the malleable Christian principles of the United States that have been used to support both egalitarian democracy and a Jim Crow regime. Guest’s book is a dense, academic read but offers a broad analysis of the creeping tendrils of neoliberalism into all religious traditions: from Turkish Islam to Scientology. Religion is just another social commodity to be selected according to the preference of the individual and consumed. In the end, the only fundamental value—what Paul Tillich would call of “ultimate concern”—is money.

Eugene McCarraher, like Guest, argues in his magnum opus, The Enchantments of Mammon (Belknap), against the rational, enlightenment and, crucially, capitalist thinkers who described the free market of merchant capitalism and the industrial age as a disenchantment from the hierarchical, superstitious, and impractical world of religion. Instead, he points out, the capitalism we’ve created for ourselves pulls upon our lives, our hearts, our culture with the force of magic, and comes with its own set of superstitions.

“Our market culture is not so much an economic system as it is a spiritual disease, one that leads people to selfishly turn away from the well-being of their neighbors and the environment,” wrote Richard A. Levins, an economist at the University of Minnesota and author of God or Greed (Itasca Books). “How does one cure a spiritual disease?” he asks.


Catholic social teaching is often bemoaned as the “church’s best-kept secret.” But Mass-goers hear Catholic social teaching every day in every gospel reading. We are told to give without counting the cost, not to worry about tomorrow, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, even on an economic level. God is the landowner in Matthew’s parable (Matt. 20:1–16) who gives a full day’s wage to everyone who works. The just landowner is not trying to maximize his own profits; rather, he realizes his wealth is just one piece of the common good, along with the dignity of the worker and his neighbor’s livelihood. That’s Catholic social teaching. Far from the best-kept secret, it’s the most inconvenient truth.

But how often, after hearing Jesus say: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21), does the following homily explain away Christ’s message? Instead of challenging their listeners to accept the radical messages of the gospel—the last are first, for example, or blessed are the poor—do homilists rather act as chaplains of the markets? Keep the workers in line, tamed, ready to spend, spend, spend (while giving a tiny segment of their surplus to the church). How often are congregations encouraged to take Jesus’ words and apply them to their workplaces, the astronomical price of housing, our 600,000 homeless siblings, the financial system glutted with riches won off exploitation?

In God or Greed, Levins outlines, along with Guest and McCarraher, the attenuation of all checks on pure monetary interest, culture, neighborhood, religion, and government into a unified marketplace where everything—clean water, sex, children, love, and so on—has a price. “As our culture becomes increasingly secular, there is no world outside of the market.”

Levins does not offer alternatives—although they exist: Mondragon’s cooperatives, gift economies, or localism. But to begin thinking of a new economy, we must first save our souls. Humans are more than pure selfish interest, and the goal of labor is more than mere profit. No offense intended to Adam Smith, but the butcher, the brewer, and the baker do not simply want to sell a product for cold, hard cash; they also want to make quality goods for a community in which they are respected and accepted. As Dorothy Day would often say, “We are all one of another.” As members of Christ’s mystical body, how could we consider creating a livelihood for ourselves at the expense of our neighbor?


This article also appears in the May 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 5, pages 23-25). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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