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All over the world, advocates of the free market are looking askance at Pope Francis. Since succeeding Benedict XVI in 2013, Pope Francis has mounted a vocal challenge to what he sees as the now dominant global ideology of capitalism:
“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by the happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”
The pope’s stance on capitalism and excessive acquisitiveness has earned substantial criticism from the conservative and pro-market media. Rush Limbaugh got a lot of publicity when he commented, “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.” Paul Ryan was slightly more charitable than Rush, arguing that Pope Francis was merely ignorant of capitalism. “The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” Ryan said.
Ryan and Limbaugh represent a fairly accurate sample of the reactions of many leaders and commentators on the right. They either conclude the pope is a left-wing radical, or simply unaware of the world outside of Argentinian crony capitalism. Neither of these views is a fair or accurate representation of what the pope is talking about.
The Catholic Church and Capitalism
In reality, Pope Francis is not suggesting a radical alteration of traditional Catholic teaching. Indeed, even his immediate predecessors were critical of the “excesses” of the capitalist economic system. Pope Benedict XVI, in the wake of the Great Recession, was extremely critical of the financial institutions at the center of the crisis:
“In recent years, a new cosmopolitan class of managers has emerged, who are often answerable only to the shareholders generally consisting of anonymous funds which de facto determine their remuneration…Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.”
Even the pope most favorably disposed toward capitalism in recent decades, John Paul II, was not without reservations about unfettered capitalism. In a 1989 encyclical, John Paul wrote that, “The free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market.” John Paul argued that the countries that were then coming out of the shadow of Soviet Communism should adopt a free enterprise system, but that it would have to be constrained not just by legal boundaries, but also “ethical and religious” ones.
There is no doubt that throughout the Cold War ers, and in the two decades of American ascendancy after its conclusion, that the Catholic Church hierarchy has been, by and large, rather well disposed toward the capitalist world order led by the United States. From the perspective of self-preservation, this made perfect sense. Taken in that historical context, it is understandable that the Catholic Church now feels comfortable shedding its close attachment to the system of global capitalism. The threat of Communism has been vanquished and the Church’s long-term survival is largely secure thanks to large and growing congregations of adherents in Latin America and Africa. Ironically, the very success of capitalism and free trade in defeating its ideological rivals has made the world safe for a Catholic Church that can pursue an independent economic worldview.
Understanding that Pope Francis belongs to a long tradition of Church skepticism toward unregulated free markets (and is not a Latin American Marxist aberration) is an important step toward understanding where Catholic teaching is heading and what that means for the rest of world. What exactly is the pope proposing?
Basically, Pope Francis is arguing for a change in the culture of capitalism. According to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the pope is advocating a kind of “virtuous capitalism.” Dolan says Pope Francis desires to “remind us that free economic activity should indeed be pursued, but the human dignity of our needy brothers and sisters must always be at the center of our attention.”
Taken in this light, Pope Francis is not a radical, but simply an advocate for the welfare of the needy. Charity is one of the central tenets of Catholicism, so this should be of little surprise. The pope seems skeptical of the ability of unregulated capitalism to provide for those who are vulnerable. That may rub champions of the free market the wrong way, but what do they expect from the leader of an organization that is nominally committed to the welfare of all people and to providing for the needy and suffering. The world is unquestionably full of a great deal of suffering, so it is unsurprising that a man who has dedicated his life to service would be upset at the economic system he sees prevailing around the world.
Squaring the Circle
Rather than dismissing Pope Francis as an anti-free market socialist, supporters of free enterprise ought to pay more attention to what he is saying. Corporations, if the recent Supreme Court case concerning Hobby Lobby is to be accepted, are capable of holding ethical stances. Is it anti-capitalist to challenge firms, and their owners and managers, to think in terms of ethics and morality? It seems like corporations ought to be able to act in responsible ways.
The best way to defeat the proponents of statism and socialism is not to reject what Pope Francis is saying, but to consider carefully what he is saying. If the free market is to survive, the actors within it must behave in such a way as to not exploit the weakness of others. That can, and often does, happen in well-functioning free markets. We should pray that such moral capitalism will prevail all over the world.