Pope Francis’s Critique of Capitalism and the Quest for the Good Life

Raphael’s The School of Athens. Taken on a visit to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, 2004.

At a time when income inequality is growing and economic opportunity remains elusive for many, Pope Francis wagged his finger, preaching, “No to an economy of exclusion; no to the new idolatry of money; no to the inequality which spawns violence.” Going further, he argued:

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.3

Francis’s remarks prompted questions around the sustainability of the post-Cold War (for lack of a better term, neoliberal) global economy; the feasibility of politicians generating solutions to mankind’s needs; and, whether the biggest deficit confronting people today is neither financial nor material, but spiritual in nature.

Back to the future?

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union—an inevitable outcome according to progressive post-Cold War narratives—a new era of globalization dawned, broadly characterized by free capital flows, market-driven pricing mechanisms (e.g., interest rates and exchange rates), deregulation and privatization of state enterprises. Twenty-two years on, it would be heroically difficult to argue that humanity as a whole is worse off than it would have been under communism.

But Pope Francis seems to be asking, “has the pendulum swung too far?” Has free-market capitalism truly led to greater dignity, liberty and opportunity, or have we become party to an economic system that now stifles these necessities?4  Regardless of one’s opinion, it’s worth pondering whether 25 years from now we’ll reflect on this period as an inflection point on the way to a more inclusive (define it how you will) economic system.5

Render therefore unto Caesar…

Beyond Pope Francis’s questions over the ethics of free-market capitalism linger questions of whether politics—at least in the liberal democracies—is capable of solving the socioeconomic problems attendant with yawning inequality and dwindling opportunity. Looking at the health, wealth and employment outcomes in the United States, as well as the political sclerosis exhibited in the face of these challenges, the failures are manifest.

Yet in the face of fractious politics, Pope Francis still believes there is a place—and even a hope—for politicians to solve these challenges:

I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! … I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.6

Perhaps this is all just a clever way of absolving the Catholic Church from taking responsibility for the poor and sick in its earthly ministries, and allowing it to focus its efforts on the glory of the hereafter. After all, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” quoth The Bible.7

I’m not so cynical. Politics has a critical role in solving these challenges, but I suspect that going forward, the solutions will emerge from the micro level, not the macro. In other words, it starts with individuals and then proceeds through local politics to national politics. Indeed, perhaps the current failures of politics in solving economic challenges is a function of the scale at which policy discussions of import are taking place.8

The quest for the good life

But where does this leave us? According to Pope Francis, living under economic systems that fail to serve the bulk of humanity and hoping that politicians will serve enlightened interests. Assuming that individuals’ earthly, material problems are solved, Pope Francis’s critique raises a larger—if implied—question: what’s it all about, man?

A couple years ago, a friend and I were discussing the economic prospects for our generation over pints of Guinness. “Ultimately,” he said, “people will have to find a source of meaning beyond which consumer goods they own.” Agree, disagree or be indifferent to the statement; but I think it captures the sentiment of an issue to which neither economics nor politics offers a solution, though both purport to do so: man’s search for meaning.


3 responses to “Pope Francis’s Critique of Capitalism and the Quest for the Good Life”

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  3. Tyler Avatar

    Great post, Mike! Firstly, just want to apologize for taking so long to post a comment.

    I really like how Pope Francis has handled his papacy thus far. I didn’t expect a pope to be like this, and I’m loving it. Regarding materials, I totally agree with you. Unfortunately, many people are so poor that they are forced to think often about how they are going to get the money to purchase the materials they need. The world is moving in the right direction, though. People are talking more and more about the poor and how we can alleviate their suffering. It’s an exciting time to be alive!

    All the best to you and yours,

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