“Capitalism itself is not to be condemned. And surely it is not vicious of its very nature, but it has been vitiated.” — Pope Pius XI (1857-1939)


Pope Francis continues to raise eyebrows with his public pronouncements, the most recent coming from the publication of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in which he criticizes “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” (Evangellii Gaudium) In news reports discussing the publication of Evangelli Gaudium, it is said Pope Francis calls “unfettered capitalism tyranny and urges rich to share wealth.” (Guardian) This led to mixed responses, which is not at all surprising. President Obama cited a portion of the document–seemingly in agreement with Pope Francis–in a speech on inequality in US society, observing “some of you may have seen just last week the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. How can it be, he wrote, that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points. But this increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country. And it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.” (as cited in SALON) A far less temperate response was delivered by the conservative pundit, Rush Limbaugh, who retorted, “This is the president citing the pope, his new best friend, because the pope is ripping America, the pope [is] ripping capitalism… and Obama’s having an orgasm. Jeremiah Wright is beside himself. Jeremiah Wright thought he was Obama’s preacher, now [the] pope somehow has co-opted Obama.” (as cited in SALON)

Is Pope Francis “ripping capitalism”, is he taking the Roman Catholic Church in a radically different direction, even embracing Marxist economics? While it may look that way to some, this is clearly not the case. Totalitarianism, Communism and Marxist collectivism are repudiated in Catholic teachings. Pope Pius XI left no doubt this is the case when he stated unequivocally, “communism, moreover, strips man of his liberty, robs human personality of all its dignity, and removes all the moral restraints that check the eruptions of blind impulse. There is no recognition of any right of the individual in his relations to the collectivity; no natural right is accorded to human personality, which is a mere cog-wheel in the Communist system.” (Divini Redemptoris) Pope Francis’ pronouncements in Evangelli Gaudium are consistent with Catholic teachings and not much different than the pronouncements of many of his predecessors who discussed the same topics.

Pope John Paul II observed in his encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, “it would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.” (Centesimus Annus) Capitalism as an economic system is affirmed in Catholic teaching, just not “unfettered capitalism”, as  John Paul II cautions “if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.” Similarly, Pope John XXIII affirmed in his encyclical letter Mater et Magistra, “the dignity of the human person “normally demands the right to use the goods of the earth, to which corresponds the fundamental obligation of granting an opportunity to possess property to all if possible. This demand arises from the moral dignity of work. It also guarantees “the conservation and perfection of a social order with makes possible a secure, even if modest, property to all classes of people” (Mater et Magistra)

Comparably, Pope Paul VI was careful to circumscribe his criticism of “unfettered capitalism” clearly stating in his encyclical letter Populorum Progressio, “but if it is true that a type of capitalism, as it is commonly called, has given rise to hardships, unjust practices, and fratricidal conflicts that persist to this day, it would be a mistake to attribute these evils to the rise of industrialization itself, for they really derive from the pernicious economic concepts that grew up along with it. We must in all fairness acknowledge the vital role played by labor systemization and industrial organization in the task of development.” (Populorum Progressio)

Pope Francis, in his criticism of “unfettered capitalism”, condemns love of money in Evangelli Gaudium noting “the worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” (Evangelli Gaudium) Pope Pius XI was as critical of this “idolatry of money” when he wrote “this dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.” (Quadragesimo Anno)

Pope Francis is not condemning capitalism in Evangelli Gaudium. On the contrary, the timing of its publication, this close to Christmas makes me think of the exhortation in Charles Dickens‘ classic tale of the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Ebeneezer Scrooge embodies what Pope Francis and his predecessors criticize as what is wrong with “unfettered capitalism.” Scrooge learns of the error of his ways from the ghost of his ill-fated business partner Jacob Marley: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” (as cited in goodreads) Pope Francis’ exhortation comes as a timely reminder that the Roman Catholic Church upholds these virtues.

Posted by Geoffrey

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