Francis and the Market

In Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation released just before Thanksgiving, Pope Francis focuses mostly on the Christian imperative of sharing the Gospel. He devotes somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent of this 50,000-word document to advice about how to preach a good sermon. But his comments on economics made the news. It’s tempting to dismiss this focus as just another case of the secular world fixing on its own preoccupations, as it has done by talking endlessly about how Francis doesn’t want the Church to talk endlessly about sex. But that’s a mistake. Francis composes particularly strong denunciations of what he regards as false thinking about economics.

He rejects the “economy of exclusion and inequality” and decries the fact that “today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest.” He takes aim at those who “continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” He denounces “the idolatry of money” and “the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation,” and declares inequality “the root of social ills.”

These are provocations, to be sure, and ones worth thinking about. Unfortunately, many commentators have allowed their primal political instincts to take over. Leftists swoon: The pope is anti-capitalist! Free-market conservatives moan: The pope is anti-capitalist! Rush Limbaugh blustered that Francis “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and described his views as “pure Marxism.”

This doesn’t make much sense. To begin, Francis makes no gestures toward socialism, the obvious (and only) alternative. Although he looks to the political sphere for an alternative to life organized by economic relations—who doesn’t?—there’s no juxtaposition of the benevolence of the state to the cruelty of free markets. No doubt he’s quite aware that those who control government often enrich themselves and their allies rather than serving the common good.

In any case, the old capitalism-versus-socialism battle is not very relevant to twenty-first-century realities. We live in an age in which capitalism is globally triumphant. The question Francis is asking—or, at least, that I take him to be asking—is what to do about the fact of global capitalism.

What’s to be done about wage competition between workers in Bangalore, India, and Youngstown, Ohio? About the migration of people in search of economic opportunity? How will global finance be regulated? Pollution and climate change? And then there’s the mother of all questions, the one Francis brings to the fore: How can we include as many people as possible in the prosperity being created by the capitalist revolution sweeping the globe?

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