In the wake of the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and of the pope’s recent speeches in Latin America, many supporters of the capitalist economy in the West might be forgiven for thinking that His Holiness has something against them. Again and again, Pope Francis excoriates an economy based on materialism and greed, and with prophetic urgency, he speaks out against a new colonialism that exploits the labor of those in poorer countries. With startling bluntness, he characterizes the dominant economic form in the developed world as “an economy that kills.” Moreover, in a speech delivered in Bolivia, a country under the command of a socialist president, the pope seemed, almost in a Marxist vein, to be calling on the poor to seize power from the wealthy and take command of their own lives. What do we make of this?
Well, a contextualization is in order. Pope Francis’s remarks, though strong, even a bit exaggerated, in the prophetic manner, are best understood in the framework of Catholic social teaching. One of the most significant constants in that tradition is a suspicion of socialism, understood as an economic system that denies the legitimacy of private property, undermines the free market and fosters a class struggle between the rich and the poor or, if I can use the more classical language, between capital and labor. The modern popes, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, have all spoken clearly against such systems, and it is hard to deny that experience has borne them out. Economies in the radically socialist or communist mode have proven to be, at best, inefficient and, at worst, brutally oppressive. Robert Sirico, Michael Novak, Arthur Brooks, and many others are therefore right in suggesting that Catholic social teaching does not represent a tertium quid beyond capitalism and socialism; rather, it clearly aligns itself against socialistic arrangements and clearly for the market economy. John Paul II appreciated the free market as the economic concomitant of a democratic polity, since both rest upon the dignity of the individual and his right to self-determination.
But this valorization of the market by no means implies that the Church advocates an unfettered capitalism. The modern popes have consistently taught that the market functions properly only when it is circumscribed both politically and morally—and it is precisely in this context that Pope Francis’ remarks should be understood. Let us look first at the political circumscription. Pope Leo XIII and his successors have deeply felt the suffering of those who have been exploited by the market or who have not been given adequate access to its benefits. And this is why they have supported political/legal reforms, including child labor laws, minimum wage requirements, anti-trust provisions, work day restrictions, the right of workers to unionize, etc. All of these legal constraints, they have taught, should not be construed as erosions of the market, but rather as attempts to make it more humane, more just, and more widely accessible. To be sure, people of intelligence and good will can and do disagree regarding the precise application of these principles, debating for example just how high the minimum wage should be fixed, just how stringently anti-trust laws should be interpreted, just how the rights of labor and capital should be balanced, etc. And neither popes nor bishops nor priests should get into the nitty-gritty of those conversations, best leaving the details to those expert in the relevant disciplines. But popes, bishops and priests can indeed call for political reforms if a market has become exploitative and hence self-destructive.
The second circumscription that the popes speak of—the moral—is even more important than the first. A market economy enjoys real legitimacy if and only if it is set in the context of a vibrant moral culture that forms its people in the virtues of fairness, justice, respect for the integrity of the other, and religion. Indeed, what good are contracts—fundamental to the functioning of a market economy—if people are indifferent to justice? What good is private property if people don’t see that stealing is wicked? Won’t wealth destroy the rich man who doesn’t appreciate the value of generosity or fails to develop sensitivity to the suffering of the poor? Won’t the drive for profit lead to the destruction of nature, unless people realize that the earth is a gift of a gracious God and meant to be enjoyed by all? This is precisely why the moral relativism and indifferentism that holds sway in many parts of the West—fostered by the breakdown of the family and the attenuating of religious practice—poses such a threat to the economy.
In light of these clarifications, we can hear the pope’s words with greater understanding. He asks, “Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?” He is not speaking here of the market as such, but of a deeply immoral attitude that has seized the hearts of too many who use the market. And he complains, “An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women.” These are strong words indeed, but we notice again that the pope’s attention is not so much on the mechanisms of capitalism, but rather on the wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others. In his call for an ethical circumscription of economic life, Francis’s language is, if anything, milder than Leo XIII’s (“once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest that one owns belongs to the poor”) or Saint Ambrose’s (“if a man has two shirts in his closet, one belongs to him; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt”).
Therefore, we should attend to Pope Francis’s prophetic speech and allow it to bother us. But we should always situate it in the context of the rich and variegated tradition of Catholic social teaching.
Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism” and “Catholicism: The New Evangelization.”