Pope Francis’ recent scathing criticisms of capitalism and the free-market have left many American Catholics scratching their heads, wondering if they have to hit the confessional next time they go out to buy a new car.
“Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society,” said the pontiff at a global gathering of popular movements in Bolivia.
In this scathing critique of the modern economic system, he warned about “the evil effects of this subtle dictatorship” that “destroys human fraternity” and “sets people against one another.”
Are Catholics obliged to agree with the pope’s critique? The answer to both questions is no.
In a passionate delivery, he cautioned about the spoils of greed: “The economy should not be a mechanism for accumulating goods” but requires the “fitting distribution of its goods among all.”
Francis described the global financial system as “the new colonialism,” and decried “the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”
This brings us to the inevitable question: Does being a good Catholic mean being “anti-capitalist” or “anti-free market?” Are Catholics obliged to agree with the pope’s critique? The answer to both questions is no.
One can be a devout Catholic and disagree thoughtfully and respectfully with Francis’ economic-political outlook. Moral and ethical conclusions about the actual functioning of domestic economies, international banking, and global largely fall in the realm of prudential judgment. Should American investors buy foreign bonds? Should corporations build factories in poor countries? Should governments sign free-trade agreements with neighboring states? All of that is up for free discussion and debate.
On the plane back from Paraguay, Francis admitted his distaste for the subject of economics.
Should governments sign free-trade agreements with neighboring states? All of that is up for free discussion and debate.
He said, “On Greece and the international system, I have a great allergy to economic things, because my father was an accountant and when he did not manage to finish his work at the factory, he brought the work home on Saturday and Sunday, with those books in those day where the titles were written in gothic. When I saw my father I had a great allergy and I didn’t understand it very well. Certainly, it would be all too simple to say that the fault is only on one side. If the Greek government has brought forward this situation of international debt, also they have a responsibility.”
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An American reporter pressed the pope on his critique of the “global economic system,” which many see as directed at the United States. He replied, “I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I must begin studying these criticisms, no?” he said. “Then we shall dialogue about them.”
So Catholics are invited by the pope himself to disagree with his conclusions on matters that are under discussion. In matters of economics, he admits his lack of interest and hence invites qualified persons to criticize his positions. He has promised to study those criticisms.
He wants to dialogue with those who disagree with him. That is all to the good.
The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D., is pastor of Holy Family Church in New York.