Since his historic election as the 266th Supreme Pontiff one year ago this week, Pope Francis seems to have struck American fiscal conservatives with one ideological thunderbolt after another while satisfying many on the Left with his rebukes of laissez-faire capitalism. With this new Holy Father appealing for a “church of the poor; for the poor,” the Roman Catholic Church—so often viewed narrowly by the American media in terms of its ostensibly opulent excesses—is slowly becoming oriented with a deep skepticism of the current global economic arrangement.
Even leaders in the Democratic Party—who often find their social positions on the receiving end of rebuke from the Vatican and American bishops—have praised Pope Francis’ emphasis on economic inequality, perhaps best exemplified by President Obama’s remark last year that he is “hugely impressed” by the new pope’s tone. Obama even quoted Pope Francis directly in December, questioning, “How could it be that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies…but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh recently denounced the pope’s words as “pure Marxism,” and billionaire Home Depot founder Ken Langone sternly warned that Pope Francis might be “alienating the rich” by his statements on economic inequity and market ethics. As the American political and media machinery repeatedly attempt to define the statements made by the religious dignitary Pope Francis in left-right binary terms, for own their benefits and self-serving purposes, the American people are being misled by one small inconvenient fact: at their very essences, the economic themes addressed by Pope Francis are as “traditional” and long-established as the Church’s widely-known social teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and the death penalty. One might be poised to believe that, due to the coverage of the Vatican by the American sensationalist media, the Catholic Catholic’s distrust of the free market is a brand new concept! The American public has been gravely misled if they have fallen victim to the narrative that the pontificate of Pope Francis epitomizes anything more than a renewed emphasis on a set of values that the Catholic Church has held for centuries.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Pope Francis is noticeably more comfortable speaking casually—often without notes—hence the fact that the vast majority of his hard-hitting statements on economics are contained within sermons, speeches, and off-the-cuff remarks rather than papal encyclicals or official Vatican documents. Arguably, this has resulted in a series of what is widely perceived to be stinging critiques of economic policy that is more verbal and active than in years past. As the first pope from the “Third World,” many attribute his informal style and themes to historical tones and struggles of the Church in Latin America—perhaps rightly so. Without a doubt, Pope Francis has made economic fairness a central theme of his papacy, but much or all of the sentiment that he is communicating to the United States, and the world as a whole, bears startling resemblance to statements made by his immediate predecessor on the exact same subject.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—who was often portrayed as an academic, out-of-touch pontiff with a great sense of formality and nobility by the American media—condemned unjust domestic and international economic arrangements in remarkably comparable terms. He might not have called out American and global Raegan-esque deregulation policies with Pope Francis’ colloquial terminology, but his words in the 2009 papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate would give pause to any fiscal conservative: “the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy… in fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function.” In his final New Years Day address before stepping down, Pope Benedict XVI slammed the “growing inequality between rich and poor and the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mentality also expressed by unregulated financial capitalism.” Even still, the Church’s cynicism towards free-market policies and concurrent concern for the vulnerable members of society wounded by such arrangements is much more innate to its history than what has been promulgated in this millennium.
Perhaps for good reason, a great deal of Catholic teachings on economic matters prior to the end of the Cold War characterized communism and socialism as being incompatible with the core components of Christianity. Since the turn of the twentieth century, nearly every pope—particularly Pope Pius XI—has condemned these ideological systems on the basis of their understanding of the human condition, the role of religion, and their capacious focus on wealth as the defining factor of an individual.
Nonetheless, the past century of Catholicism has not failed to indict aspects of capitalism for its fair share of structural sin itself. In fact, Pope John Paul II—a man who grew up under communist totalitarianism—laid the blame for rampant poverty and inequality at the feet of both Western style free-market capitalism, and the communist and socialist systems of the East, noting in his 1987 document Solicitudo Rei Socialis that “each of the two ideologies…has proposed and still promotes, on the economic level, antithetical forms of the organization of labor and of the structures of ownership.” Decades earlier, Pope Paul VI observed in his encyclical Populorum Progressio that “certain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society…present[ing] profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations. This…paves the way for a particular type of tyranny.” In light of such a long and developed tradition, are Pope Francis’ more straightforward criticisms of free market capitalism actually as revolutionary and radical as many in political and media outlets are conveying to the American people?
The media, in covering the remarks of Pope Francis on capitalism, are either unfamiliar with what the Catholic Church has taught for many decades, or are purposely excluding this history to use the image of the pontiff for their own purposes. Regardless, before Americans buy into the false media narrative that Pope Francis is now tackling issues that have been long unnoticed or unaddressed by the institutional Church—or attempt the impossible task of classifying Catholic teachings amongst American political ideologies—they should look back at the lengthy patrimony of Catholic Social Teaching on economics. Pope Francis’ monetary themes do not simply come out of nowhere—they follow a long, developed and rich history of the Church criticizing the components of the free-market systems of the Western World that it views as unjust. Pope Francis, then, signifies a reframed emphasis and a continuation of this historical chronicle, rather than an ideological break with tradition.
The informed American, the informed Catholic, the informed historian, the informed theologian, and the informed economist must interpret the Pope Francis pontificate with a profound awareness of doctrinal continuity coupled with a reflective attitude towards how secular entities might manipulate the statements of the Vicar of Christ to fit their own agendas. Pope Francis offers a new and unique challenge to political, religious, and economic leaders—and speaks to the global populace as well—when he boldly asserts, “today, we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”
One overwhelming premise stands above all in Pope Francis’ economic teachings: unregulated or under-regulated free-market capitalism is a serious threat to the wellbeing of humanity, and—at its very core—it is incompatible with the Catholic Church’s teachings. The Church has never embraced free-market capitalism, nor has it ever given its official imprimatur to any economic system. There are aberrant elements of the contemporary global capitalist system, and—like those who occupied his office before him—Pope Francis is outstandingly fearless in addressing these aspects, in accord with Church tradition.