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What capitalists should learn from the Pope's critique

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 16, 2013

By the end of the day I expect to hear at least a half-dozen complaints that Pope Francis has sided with socialists, because of his Thursday address denouncing the “cult of money.

The same problem arises whenever a Pope—or any other Christian leader—denounces selfishness and materialism. Political pundits, accustomed to viewing everything in terms of contemporary policy debates, leap to conclusions. Socialists denounce selfishness, they observe. So if the Pope denounces selfishness, he must be a socialist. Non sequitur. That syllogism is fatally flawed.

The Judeo-Christian condemnation of false idols, which Pope Francis invoked today, stretches back to the Book of Exodus. The moral imperative to care for those in need, for widows and orphans—yes, and for aliens living in a strange land—runs through the Psalms and is amplified in the Gospels. The Church is not imitating the rhetoric of the socialist movement; the socialists are exploiting the teachings of the Church.

But why have socialists been so successful in that endeavor—so successful, in fact, that today we are tempted to think of a “Good Samaritan” as someone operating a government-funded program, rather than as an exemplar of Christian charity? Why haven’t the defenders of capitalism been able to express their own economic arguments in the language of the Gospels?

Too often, I’m afraid that—as Pope Francis suggested today—the rich and powerful are not particularly interested in the Gospel message. But that doesn’t really answer the question, because socialists aren’t much interested either—as is evident from their penchant for alliance with the proponents of abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. The Word of God is a two-edged sword, and there are enough moral challenges in the New Testament to make any ideologue uneasy.

So why does the Pope sound like a socialist? Or rather, how have socialists managed to make themselves sound like Christians? Here’s my conclusion: The political Left has been willing to take what it likes from the Bible, while the Right has been unwilling to do so.

Socialists make their arguments in moral terms, because if the argument is stated purely in practical terms, the socialists will lose. By the same logic, capitalists prefer to state their arguments in practical economic terms. Unfortunately, in doing so, they cede the moral high ground to their opponents. With rare exceptions—one thinks immediately of Michael Novak and of the Acton Institute--defenders of capitalism have not taken the trouble to state their case primarily in moral terms. And that’s unfortunate, because a powerful argument can be made that capitalism, tempered by a Christian moral framework, is the best available solution to the problem of poverty.

Nothing that Pope Francis said—nothing that any Pope has said—would rule out that approach. (Pope John Paul II opened the door to a Christian defense of capitalism in Laborem Exercens, then pushed it wide open in Centisimus Annus.) To be sure, the teaching magisterium has been critical of the excesses of capitalism, and of capitalism raised to an all-encompassing ideology. Pope Francis today repeated that condemnation of “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.” Hard-core libertarians will be uncomfortable with that language, certainly. But then hard-core libertarians are often uncomfortable with the Ten Commandments.

American conservatives sometimes complain that the Vatican should recognize liberal activists and social engineers as enemies of the faith. There’s justice in that complaint, but the argument works both ways. Conservatives should recognize the Catholic Church as a defender of the moral order that makes productive capitalism possible. There’s a natural alliance to be made, if only both sides recognize it.

During his talk to new ambassadors at the Vatican today, Pope Francis made a very interesting claim. If the world’s financial system were reformed along ethical lines, he promised, the result would “produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone.” I don’t claim to know exactly what he means, but wouldn’t you like to hear more?

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - May. 19, 2013 12:12 AM ET USA

    Matthew 6:24, "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." Money is a vehicle to serve God. If we let it become anything more than that, it does become somewhat of a false idol. Now go back and read Matthew 6:21 again and it becomes clear. You will assign your heart a purpose. We all do. Make it the right one! Pope Francis is right to point it out.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 18, 2013 1:16 AM ET USA

    Popes, almost all of European cultural orgin, have always seemed to have great difficulty understanding the American Catholic viewpoint which to some extent has been hybridized with protestanism. Protestanism itself is flavored with a distinct distrust of "the system" and a strong emphasis of God's power "in the individual..." Thus, so long as our Catholic "rulers" fail to recognize the gravity of past "systemic sins" they will continue to misunderstand us. Even popes need to grow and repent.

  • Posted by: jamesbell431857 - May. 17, 2013 6:27 PM ET USA

    We should bring back the true gold standard. Since it left during World War I (with the last vestiges of it abolished by Richard Nixon), American exports have been replaced by bond sales to foreign countries. The Federal Reserve prints money, purchases American debt, and gives money to the largest banks who invest it abroad. Big finance wins. The American middle class loses. The gold standard honors subsidiarity far more than our current PhD Standard. Gold is the reform we need.

  • Posted by: FredC - May. 17, 2013 2:59 PM ET USA

    Laissez faire capitalism leads to monopolies, if only locally. These monopolies result in low wages and high prices. To be just, free markets need free competition. Free competition requires that the government enforce anti-monopoly laws and anti-fraud laws, both with labor unions and industry. The resulting business scene then conforms to the freedom and dignity of human beings.

  • Posted by: djpeterson - May. 17, 2013 12:27 PM ET USA

    I agree with your point that Catholics who favor social justice must be loyal to all church teachings, while proponents of free markets must recognize the need for appropriate limits. The problem with Novak and the Acton Institute is that their liassez faire dogmas have not really born fruit.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 17, 2013 11:34 AM ET USA

    Alcuin, your suggestion leads to the conclusion that "hard-core libertarians" are way off base. The "negative externalities" of modern finance and capitalism led us to the brink of a global catastrophe in 2007-2008. Such a "market" clearly needs a great deal more "abrogating" than any libertarian I ever met is willing to admit.

  • Posted by: Alcuin - May. 16, 2013 10:13 PM ET USA

    I think that hard-core libertarians would argue that the state can best serve the common good by abrogating the autonomy of markets only so far as necessary to protect people from force and regulate negative externalities.

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