Friday, March 15, 2013

Why This (Semi) Capitalist Wants a Social Justice Pope

On Facebook and various other venues, there has been something a lot of people have noted when talking about Pope Francis.  They note his general skepticism of a lot of the way capitalism is practiced today, and wonder what the political right in America will think of that.  While it is still far too early to tell, there is a chance (so the story goes) that Pope Francis will be far less friendly to free market capitalism than one like Blessed John Paul II.

There are quite a few ways to respond to this, outside of the obvious that they probably don't know much about either Francis or John Paul II.  First and foremost, whatever happened in Argentina, a military dictatorship known for its rank nepotism could hardly be viewed as a capitalist entity.  Yet this misses the point entirely.  Quite simply, the Pope is no economist.

Now before everyone thinks I'm going to say we can just safely ignore his teaching if you end up not liking it, no, we really can't.  While there is a difference in weight one might place on issues like the immorality of contraception or abortion and the amount of government involvement in an economy, his voice should carry great weight for Catholics.  The Holy Father is a pastor of souls, and the care of souls is his primary concern.  This leads to a truth that might shock you, so take a deep breath.

Economic systems really don't care about the salvation of your soul.  Economic forces focus on efficiencies, utilization of resources, pricing and various other factors.  They care little whether the person participating in the transaction is a sinner or a saint.  Just because something is efficient does not make it an absolute good idea.

For the Pope, he needs to worry about the eternal salvation of his flock.  That doesn't come through greater efficiency and as much wealth as possible.  More often than not, these are hinderances.  While an economic system might not care too much about the creative destruction that spawns new industries and businesses, a Pope will, because the people who were the focus of such destruction are human beings created in the Image of God who deserve all the support and attention we can muster.  The job of Catholic Social teaching is to introduce a moral compass into something which is inherently morally neutral.  (Again, the market doesn't care if you go bankrupt or make a billion, as the market is not a person!)

If we can say one thing with confidence, today's economy lacks that moral compass.  While recessions come and go, imagine if there wasn't widespread fraud by lenders, banks, and government in the housing crisis?  Imagine if our entitlement system was operating within a society that valued children and healthy demographics replacement levels?  Imagine how much better off society would be if everyone gave just five percent to charity?  If that's a bit utopian, imagine if every year an additional five percent of people started following these precepts in the economy, and how that would change over time?  Without a firm moral compass, economics turns into consumerism, where wealth and efficiency is worshipped as a god a la Ayn Rand.

This is the discussion the Pope will no doubt generate, and it is a discussion the world needs to take seriously, especially in the West, where we have seen all too clearly what an economics without morality gives us.


  1. I would also point out that before people jump the gun and paint Pope Francis out to be a big government liberal in the economic sphere, they would do well to know that Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) strove hard to reform the Jesuits in South America, which in large part involved a vociferous oppostion to Liberation Theology and suffered a great deal as a result. And much of the of big governemnt economic thoughtis shot through with Liberation Theology. For instance. President Obama's spiritual father Jermiah Wright was a big proponent of Liberation Theology as is much of the religious left.

    Greg Mockeridge

    I think the distinction JPII draws in regards to what type of capitalism is good and what is not is the best guidance in my view. I also think he was on to something when he said it would better to speak of a "business econnmy" or "market economy" because the term "capitalism" has been defined in such an elastic way. I would also venture to say that some form of free market economics is the only system that actually depends on a sound moral basis if it is to ultimately survive, much less thrive.

    Finally, it is also noteworthy to point out that JPII's pro-free market thought ala Centesimus Annus did become clear until almost thirteen years into his pontificate.

  2. I said the moment that Pope Francis was announced that other than being less Chicago school than my liking economically, I was well pleased with the selection.

    In terms of economic matters, the basic distinction to make is between espousing moral/ethical principles and making recommendations for how to best implement them. The first is of an objective import and well within the pope's wheelhouse whereas the second is more subjective and is not. That said, it seems appropriate for Catholics to give a respectful hearing to the latter (even if they disagree with it which is allowed) and give a more docile and religious assent to the former.


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