Pope Francis has used the “Chair of Saint Peter” in ways that seem, to many people, “political.” Whether through his actions to promote relations between the U.S. and Cuba, or through democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’ visit to Vatican City, Pope Francis has displayed a message that, from afar, can be seen as encouragement for socialist reform. The question is whether or not this reform is one that uproots the basic bedrock of capitalism, directing nations toward socialism, or if it is strictly a moral outcry, a plea to the starved consciences of the wealthy abusers of the free market to look twice upon the beggars they pass on their way to Wall Street.
It is the mission of the Pope to proclaim to the world an ethic of a “Man for All Seasons,” one that is timeless and firm. The Jesuit “Pope of the New World” professes that it is our duty to adopt a lifestyle of service that reserves the inalienable rights and dignities of the poorer within a society. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ first encyclical of his papacy, he takes considerable time discussing the duties and crises of “communal commitment.” He writes, “The new Jerusalem, the holy city (cf. Rev 21:2-4), is the goal towards which all of humanity is moving.” Reminiscing on this, he finds it curious that “the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city.” There is something reminiscent of Heaven in a human “City,” something almost in the “image and likeness” of the City of God, and Pope Francis argues, “We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares.”
In this encyclical, his Holiness draws considerable attention to capitalism. He writes that “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” and, “As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
But in his book Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, one of the conceptual forerunners of modern capitalism, argues that yes, in regard to individuals, “It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.” By laboring hard and developing an economically sound enterprise of some sort, it is necessary, for the success of the business owner’s assets, that the business owner employ workers. From this entrepreneurial ambition, jobs are demanded, new and innovative products that improve the living conditions of people are introduced, and new ideas are not only accepted but also glorified. Smith proposes that an “invisible hand” will, in a free market system, provide an equilibrium price determined by competition which will guarantee equality. Smith perfectly summarizes these ideas by one of his most famous quotes, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
The “Radical Pope” challenges this economic philosophy by saying that “people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” His holiness continues, “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” Pope Francis declares that “such an economy kills” and that “we can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.” After resolving that the elements of a free market society are sinful and barbaric, he quotes Saint John Chrysostom’s De Lazaro Concio, making a statement that is nothing short of outright Socialism.
“[…] I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs’.”
In more modern recognizable terms: “share the wealth.” Reading the theses recognized by Pope Francis, how are we, citizens of the United States who owe our prosperity and freedom to capitalism, to competently observe his Holiness’ words?
It is undoubtedly easy to underscore the pope’s first encyclical as a leftist declaration that calls for trials against the wickedness of a system founded on the principle of greed. But it is imperative to understand that the pope is not preaching against the capitalist system itself. He preaches against what atrocities it is capable of, or what can be defined as “savage capitalism.
Capitalism is an effective system that distributes material, talent, and wealth in a comparatively efficient way. Within a capitalist society, personal interest and competition drive the economy. Self-benefit becomes the incentive that enkindles a zest for work within the individual. In an economic system absent of this motive, people are less inclined to work and the product of their labor suffers. There are countless advantages to this system. The most prominent is that it has lifted about one billion people out of abject poverty in the last 20 years alone. To help better understand the impact, consider this comparison. There are about one billion Roman Catholics in the world. For every one confirmed Catholic, there has been a human being lifted from the poverty Pope Francis preaches we work against.
However, there are fundamental flaws in the capitalist system, as with any human institution. This system commonly leaves those who place profit above all else in positions of power, and therefore many people with significant hardships become neglected. A person who neglects the needs of others for the sake of profit is considered what some people have called a Savage Capitalist. He or she only cares for profit and gain, and their “thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” as put in his Holiness’ encyclical. With such a capitalist’s savagery, the flaws of capitalism surmount above the blessings, and all, no matter how fragile, “like the environment,” is “defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” The Pope then says this “worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.” The question is: Is this capitalism’s fault, or is it sin’s?
The capitalist system cannot, in and of itself, provide the total necessary compensation for the lesser within a society. The idea is that people who place human decency on a higher pedestal than economic profit will. The Catholic Church, among many other groups, individuals, and organizations, is a religious institution that places others above its own profit. It is a group that is eternally fixated on the struggles of the poor.
Pope Francis, just like St. Francis of Assisi, has dedicated his papacy to better the lives of the poor. When the pope states that capitalism is flawed, it is because the flaws listed above are evident. He is encouraging those who live under capitalist systems, especially those with wealth and political influence, to help and promote the poor. The teachings of Pope Francis are the perfect complement to capitalism. When people respect others and have a healthy and mature respect for wealth (people first, wealth second) these flaws are rendered irrelevant, and the capitalist system works at its best. If we adopt Pope Francis’ proposed “Theology of Poverty,” and give more than just the surplus, which is only needed to sustain an unnecessarily comfortable life, we will form a powerful faculty of empathy, and, therefore, increased wealth won’t be our ultimate concern, but rather, the betterment of those who are in need of assistance.
Conclusion: Rebuilding the Temple of Democracy
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio did not accept the privileges of Bishop of Rome to effectually overthrow man-made systems of commerce. The pope is here to save souls not dollars. He wishes to reform the hearts of the people around him. This is a lesson that his chosen patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, learned in a similar manner. In his human misunderstanding of God’s request to rebuild the church of Assisi, he physically rebuilt the church brick by brick. St. Francis later realized that God’s will was to rebuild the hearts of the people of Assisi, not the physical church itself. Those who think that Pope Francis is out to change capitalism are making the same mistake St. Francis of Assisi did. His Holiness is concerned with those who have fallen to the temptation of greed made possible through capitalism, not capitalism itself.
We, as competent and intelligent beings, have to continually perfect whatever system we inherit, whether by altering certain aspects of it or removing ineffectual ones. It is beyond undignifying and ignorant of us to place blame on a successful system of commerce simply because we lack the human decency to give charity, the most basic of human moral duties. We must return to a competent ethic that places both God and our fellow man above wealth. To us in the United States, this means we must preserve the American Dream and constantly work toward the “New Jerusalem.” It is our duty, as inheritors of the United States of America, to ensure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
And in terms of economic systems, there is something to be said. In the words of my father: “Capitalism, left to its own design, is savage. Communism, left to its own design, is slavery.” And in conclusion, his Holiness makes the following remarks at the end of his section on economics and communal commitment which perfectly communicate his intentions.
“A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.”