A prophetic pope and social teaching Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Jul. 23, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

In the wake of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si' and 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.

In a speech 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' remarks, though strong, even a bit exaggerated, in the prophetic manner, are best understood in the framework of Catholic social teaching.

Suspicion of socialism

One of the most significant constants in that tradition is a suspicion of socialism, 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.

Modern popes, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, have all spoken clearly against such systems, and 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.

Catholic social teaching clearly aligns itself against socialistic arrangements and for the market economy.

Unfettered capitalism

But this valorization of the market by no means implies that the Church advocates an unfettered capitalism. 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' 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. 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.

People of intelligence and good will can and do disagree regarding the application of these principles, debating, for example, just how high the minimum wage should be fixed or how the rights of labor and capital should be balanced.

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.

Vibrant moral culture

The second circumscription that the popes speak of -- the moral -- is even more important than the first. A market economy enjoys real legitimacy if and only if it is set in the context of a vibrant moral culture that forms its people in the virtues of fairness, justice, respect for the integrity of the other, and religion.

What good are contracts if people are indifferent to justice? What good is private property if people don't see that stealing is wicked? Won’t the drive for profit lead to the destruction of nature, unless people realize that the earth is a gift of a gracious God and meant to be enjoyed by all?

This is precisely why the moral relativism and indifferentism that holds sway in many parts of the West poses such a threat to the economy.

Understanding Pope Francis

In light of these clarifications, we can hear Pope Francis' words with greater understanding. He asks, "Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?"

The pope's attention is not so much on capitalism, but rather on the wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others.

Therefore, we should attend to Pope Francis' prophetic speech and allow it to bother us. But we should always situate it in the context of the rich and variegated tradition of Catholic social teaching.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org