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Understanding the Pope’s Take on Capitalism

© Antoine Mekary / Aleteia
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Is the pursuit of money always the "dung of the devil"?

Confusion swirled around the world when photographs emerged last week of Pope Francis holding a crucifix made out of a hammer and sickle. The controversial icon was presented to him by the Socialist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. 

Pope Francis looked bewildered as he viewed the gift, and observers tried to discern  his comments in the midst of the media scrum. Did the pope say, “This is not okay?” Others translated his comments as “I did not know that.”

The Pope later clarified that he was not offended by the gift, and explained that the communist crucifix was the replica of one designed by a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Luis Espinal, who was tortured and killed by Bolivian paramilitary squads in 1980. The pope called it “protest art” and said he understood the context in which it was made.

Many have raised the question of whether the pope is sympathetic to Marxist ideas. During his visit to South America he spent much of his time railing against the injustices of today’s "structurally perverse" global economic system that puts profit ahead of people. An increasing number of faithful and thoughtful Catholics has questioned his attacks on fossil fuels and the free-market economy saying they are naive, shallow and irresponsible. They claim that capitalism is the force which has driven economic growth and lifted many people out of poverty while Socialism and Communism have only plunged millions into deeper poverty.

It is not always easy for Americans to understand Pope Francis’ perspective. I began to get a glimpse into the mindset of Latin American Catholics when I visited Central America on a mission trip. It was explained how, in many Latin American countries, the majority of the wealth, power and land was owned by a handful of ruling families. The poor were often oppressed by an almost feudalistic system supported by a dictatorship that denied them opportunity, abused their freedoms, crushed them underfoot. It was extremely difficult to show a “preferential option for the poor” without seeking to change the system that keep them poor. Marxism seemed very attractive, and many Catholics, like Father Espinal were lured into Marxist Liberation theology.

This is where Pope Francis is coming from. While sympathetic to the suffering of the poor, and no doubt hearing the arguments of liberation theologians, he has, on the other hand, always had the reputation of avoiding explicit liberation theology.

Fr Robert  Barron helps to explain how Pope Francis’ thoughts, words and actions fit into the wider tradition of Catholic social teaching. He writes, “One of the most significant constants in that tradition is a suspicion of socialism, understood as 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…The modern popes, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, have all spoken clearly against such systems.”

He goes on to explain that Pope St. John Paul II understood that a free market system went hand in hand with democratic freedoms. However, while the popes have repudiated socialism as a system, they have also criticized the kind of capitalism that glorifies greed and treats human beings  and the natural world as no more than commodities to be exploited. The Pope’s criticism of “an economy that kills” is criticism of an economic system that is out of control. Catholic social teaching stresses that the free market needs to be subject to political and moral constraints.

The political controls are things like mandates on minimum wages, worker’s benefits, suppression of monopolies, environmental controls and codes of behavior for employers. The extent and limits of these constraints are rightly debated by economists and politicians. The pope asserts that these controls must be oriented toward the common good of the whole human family and not just towards the endless accumulation of money.  As such his prophetic words are completely in keeping with historic Catholic social teaching.

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