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’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. 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.
Welcome to the Blog! I am a Salesian of Don Bosco and was ordained to the priesthood on August 26, 2000. I hope this site is a place of interest for you where you will find ideas and information on the Catholic faith and on Salesianity.