Opinion: What to make of the Pope’s harsh critique of capitalism?

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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. What do we make of this?

OPINION

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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. The modern popes, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, have appreciated the free market, but they have also 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’s 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.

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?

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.

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.

Fr. Robert Barron is the Rector of Mundelein Seminary and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.A longer version of this essay first appeared at realclearpolitics.com and atwordonfire.org

Follow Fr. Robert Barron at @FrRobertBarron

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