Posted by: gmscan | May 27, 2013

Pope Francis and Capitalism

I want to take a quick detour from my consideration of Rosaria Butterfield’s book I will get back to that soon.


There was quite the media buzz over Pope Francis’ recent comments on economics. There were literally thousands of headlines saying – “Pope Francis urges global leaders to end ‘tyranny’ of money.”

The London Telegraph went on –

“He said free-market capitalism had created a “tyranny” and that human beings were being judged purely by their ability to consume goods.

Money should be made to “serve” people, not to “rule” them, he said, calling for a more ethical financial system and curbs on financial speculation.

Countries should impose more control over their economies and not allow “absolute autonomy”, in order to provide “for the common good.”

Naturally this provoked a backlash from conservatives and libertarians. Forbes ran an article headlined “Pope Francis’s Economics: Yes, He Has A Leftist View Of Free Markets,” and The Daily Caller wrote, “Why Pope Francis is wrong about capitalism.” 

I was skeptical. The media know little about economics and less about religion. I wanted to see the Pope’s actual remarks, not just a sensational snippet or two. The text of his speech was not easy to find, but someone finally put me on to it at the Vatican web site.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Francis’ remarks were both far more interesting and far more nuanced that press reports acknowledged. It was not remotely a broad condemnation of capitalism. Nor was it just a diatribe against the wealthy. I don’t agree with everything he said, but everything he said was thoughtful and thought provoking.

On one hand he praises the many advances that have been made –

“We can only praise the positive achievements which contribute to the authentic welfare of mankind, in fields such as those of health, education and communications.”

But he also cautions against excess –

“At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. Certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident.”

Now I disagree that poverty is becoming worse, and would argue the exact opposite – never in human history has there been less famine and hunger than today.  But I absolutely agree that more psychological pathologies are growing and people are more self-centered and isolated than ever before. At least in Western societies, people are feeling less meaningful and taking solace in drugs, sex, and meaningless entertainment. The church can do a lot of good here, much more than any economic system can do.

Francis worries that people are being defined solely in their roles as consumers, but that isn’t really true. We are equally defined in our roles as producers. But it is the welfare state, not the economic system, that enables so many to live without any productive role.

I also think he takes too much meaning from the current economic troubles, especially in Europe. Again, these woes are the result on an excessive reliance on state-sponsored social programs and are temporary and self-correcting. Religious leaders need to be measured in their assessments of temporary trends. A few years ago many were distressed over the problem of “third world debt,” and called for a jubilee year (2000) of debt forgiveness. But this was myopic. Most of the countries with the greatest debt at the time (such as India and Brazil) are rapidly becomining economic powerhouses today. They were not bailed out by others. They reformed their own economies to be more productive.

But there is little doubt that far too many of us have lost our values and are living lives of obsessive materialism.  Francis says –

“Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God. Ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance! It is regarded as counterproductive: as something too human, because it relativizes money and power; as a threat, because it rejects manipulation and subjection of people: because ethics leads to God, who is situated outside the categories of the market. God is thought to be unmanageable by these financiers, economists and politicians, God is unmanageable, even dangerous, because he calls man to his full realization and to independence from any kind of slavery.”

Amen to that.

He goes on to say –

“The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but the Pope has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them.”

Amen again. And this the point the media miss — Francis doesn’t hate the rich, quite the opposite. The rich are in need of salvation every bit as much (probably more) than the poor. Their success leads to pride, which can alienate them from God. Jesus preached on this quite a lot. But it is love, not hate, that will convince the rich that they, too, need God. And once they receive God’s grace, they will gladly turn to the needy and convey that grace to others.

One final point. Here Pope Francis is addressing the economic system. I am certain that he will soon address the political and cultural systems as well. And I expect he will have some choice words to share with the leaders of those systems, too.








  1. Greg, your writings are easy to read and follow. Your comments are nearly always on target. Your faith journey is inspiring. I, like many others, are following close behind and appreciate your leading us down this path and introducing us to interesting people and concepts. If you ever think that these writing are just evaporating into cyberspace, think again. You are having more of a ripple effect than you will ever know. Thanks again.

  2. I read an article recently which spoke of metaphors, and how they can be effectively used and abused.
    The author wrote that the primary difference between a household and the federal government, is that the federal government doesn’t die.
    I thought an interesting metaphor for the federal government, would be God, who always was, is and always will be.
    I linked His infinity to the ability of our government to create money out of thin air, as God created the world with 10 utterances.
    I am really sick of the nonsense spouted by people who believe that as the world’s reserve currency, we can act almost like God himself, we are that powerful.
    While capitalism and Christianity have its similarities, in that both encourage us to fulfill our God-given potentials, when it comes to money, there is much conflict and disagreement between the 2 doctrines.
    For example, how can a Capitalist seek first the Kingdom, rather than profits?
    Don Levit

    • Your comments led me to recall the argument as to why liberals want to eliminate God from our culture. The constitution states that our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come from God (“we are endowed by our creator”). If God is successfully isolated from our self governance model then who has the power to give us rights? It is in this scenario that big government can take over to replace God as the grantor or rights and the one that can remove rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, in the current culture, if your governance ideology does not believe in the first God goiven right (life), then why would any of the others including the BIll of Rights have any sanctity? I see this as the reasoning of too many behind changing, removing, or ignoring the 1st Amendment (right to free press & religion), 2nd Amendment (right to bear arms), and many other challenges to our God given rights.

      • Ron:
        And your astute comments reminds me of why our country seemed to be set apart from among all the nations; we expressly allowed for God to be part of our church and state. How can an infinite God be confined to one portion of our communites?
        Your importance that you place on God for our long-term security (financial, mental, and spiritual) is the exact reason I left the Unitarian Universalist Church about 5 months ago (after being very active for 13 years). Without God as a central tenet of the faith, I realized that slowly, and very subtly, the organization was turning its members into individual gods, encouraging us to use our (God-given) gifts, talents, and abilities without acknowledging and honoring God, and by acknowledging and honoring the power of our UU community.
        I have been joyfully involved in Chabad, a mystical, orthodox Jewish community for 5 years, in which Jews at all spiritual levels, including mine, accepted and welcomed
        Don Levit

  3. I am liking Pope Francis more and more these days. I am hoping that we Catholics have a “winner” this time.

  4. Hey Greg,

    Happy Memorial Day!

    Quite wise of you to assume that whatever media picked up on the comments of Pope Francis, they were bound to take him out of context. Unless of course they had no ideological agenda of their own. Religious leaders are almost never quoted in context. (Not even those that spoke in the Scriptures. But I digress.)

    I am always pleasantly surprised by the ethical teachings of the Reformed Rabbis. It seems we Christians have focused much more on the “what” while they have focused more on the “so what”. So they bring to the table 2500 years of studies on how to apply God centered morality to the ethics of every day life. Whenever I listen to a Rabbi speak on God centered ethics, I am always humbled by how easily they can navigate real life dilemmas, whether it be humane capitalism and banking, medical research, birth control, philanthropy, or tree hugging, they can always point back to word of God and show it can be a light unto our feet. And I, who have been immersed in the Scriptures my whole life, can only stand in awe at how easily they do it.

    It does go back to your excellent earlier post. Why do so many of our Christian brothers and sisters walk away from all but a small percentage of the Scriptures? The ‘left’ and the ‘right’ often have their own Cliff Notes version of the Bible, and often they capture different things in their own Cliff Notes versions, but any more, today, those Cliff Notes tend to fit on a single 3×5 card. Much ado about the Scriptures and what they are, but little in the department what is actually written and the internal context in which it is written.

    But God based ethics takes you straight there.

    • Jodie,

      For a short while I was participating in a study group with a Rabbi in Israel. We were looking at Exodus and it was fascinating how he closely examined every sentence and word and found application in today’s world. He did it with an attitude of reverence.

      Pretty different than impatient American Christians who gallop through Scripture to get to the (happy) ending. Fortunately, I currently have a pastor who is more like the Rabbi. She has been going through the Beatitudes one at a time — “Blessed (happy) are the peacemakers…” What is it to be blessed (or happy)? Is peace just the absence of war or conflict? No, it is more “shalom,” a feeling of wholeness and fulfillment. Peace MAKERS are not the same as peace lovers, and so on. I am blessed that God brought me to this place and this teacher. The Word of God deserves no less than this level of attention.

      • Impatient! That’s exactly it! We want fast food. But the Scriptures need to simmer. And ferment. And every bite should be chewed slowly, and deliberately, to get the full breadth of its flavor.

        Amen to that.

        (PS: its not just a feeling of wholeness and fulfillment. It IS wholeness, and and it IS fulfillment)

  5. Jodie: You really nailed it with the word “is.” This post reminds me of a prior post in which Greg was writing about the importance of the knowledge of Scriptures. Here, we seem to be taking the approach that the depth of knowledge is just as important, or maybe more so, than the width.
    I find myself reading the same book over again, years later.
    The prior Don Levit would have thought this to be a waste of time, for I could be learning new material instead of rehashing over old material.
    Instead, I find new insights and richer, deeper meaning the second time around.
    I understand the Hebrew word for “meditate” means to “chew over.”
    How do you like that “food for thought?”
    Don Levit

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