This Economy Kills: Pope Francis on Capitalism and Social Justice
by andrea tornielli and giacomo galeazzi, trans. by demetrio s. yocum
liturgical press, 184 pages, $19.95

In Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, two seasoned Vaticanisti, Pope Francis has the journalistic mediators he would wish for, perhaps pray for. They share most of his views concerning the contemporary geoeconomic system: It is a global order/disorder of “exclusion and inequality,” serving one of the oldest human idols, money. It is a system that “kills.” Presenting the pope’s thought on economic matters, Tornielli and Galeazzi have produced a book that is all favorable exposition—with criticism aimed only at the pope’s critics.

Thus, the book is not, as its authors would have it, a straightforward defense of a pope who aims to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Their failure to be honest brokers precludes that. But in reading it, one does come to a better understanding of Francis’s worldview, an anti-capitalist, anti–global north perspective that draws in some ways on the Catholic tradition of social thought, while adding many personal elements and emphases. Some observers have ventured that with the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and other such rumblings in Europe, the pontiff is the de facto leader of the internationalist Left. His traditional views on gender and family may complicate that role. But given his position as leader of a worldwide millennial institution, anyone concerned with the spiritual politics of the contemporary scene would do well to pursue the question, What is Francis’s agenda? Whatever its flaws, this book illuminates that question.

Francis’s most capacious discussion of these matters is his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (2015). Tornielli and Galeazzi devote a chapter to it, but they fail to extract some of its most important lessons regarding the pope’s thinking. In Laudato Si’, Francis indicates that he divides the world into “the global North and South” (LS, #51); this division, however, is far from neutrally descriptive. It contains empirical claims, as well as causal and moral ones, most often cast in starkly binary terms. To speak bluntly (a mode not unknown to the pontiff): According to Francis, the world is divided into haves and have-nots; the impoverished circumstances and dismal prospects of the latter are principally caused by the former; and the current distribution of power and resources on the international scene is arranged and manipulated by the haves at the expense of the have-nots.

The pope’s indictment in Laudato Si’ is thus dramatic and sweeping, focused on both the spiritual and the structural realms. Francis reads men’s hearts and describes the contemporary organization and logic of “power.” The encyclical’s dramatis personae are the haves, the have-nots, and Nature. The haves are presented as possessing agency, which they exercise for the most part wrongly, with devastating consequences for the environment and their fellow human beings; the have-nots and Nature are presented as sinned against and, for the most part, reactive. Evil has been let loose and innocence is at its mercy. Francis presents himself as someone who has listened for and heard “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (#49). He has become their spokesman in the midst of assault and neglect.

Francis, however, also displays some sympathy for the perpetrators of global evil. The haves, captive to a benighted technocratic-consumerist mentality and locked into a global system whose logic is nigh irresistible (#108), deserve not just condemnation but pity. Francis points to indices of social anomie and individual loneliness in advanced countries, as well as expanding swaths of exclusion. In other words, the division exists within countries and not just between global blocs. This means that external enemies of the poor have internal allies. But it also gives opportunities for important alliances. Tornielli and Galeazzi’s chapter on the pope’s encouragement of “popular movements” should be read in this context. These movements are important soldiers in the resistance and counter-campaign against the global north and its southern allies.

One could say much more about the encyclical’s dichotomous depiction of things, including secondary qualifications and nuances, but these basic lines should be kept in mind as one considers particular acts and utterances of the pontiff. Francis presents himself as a friend of the poor, and hence as the great bane and excoriator of their enemies. And, we repeat, this dichotomy is structural, not just moral. It must perforce inform his geostrategic thinking and his revolutionary plans. He calls for “revolution,” both cultural or spiritual (#114) and structural. His preferred means is “dialogue,” but such dialogue is to lead to enormous changes in thinking and living, to the “radical” reordering of our lives, both individual and communal, at the local, national, and international levels. Francis is a change-agent with comprehensive global designs.

Within this global view, he has regional considerations and agendas. They are explicit in connection with his own country, Argentina, and native region, Latin America. Francis has repeatedly called for a Patria Grande, a federation of fraternal countries informed by “solidarity,” which would work together to resist “colonizations,” economic and otherwise, as well as make their unique contributions to humanity. One can infer that similar endeavors already underway in the global south would meet with his approval.

This dichotomous paradigm also sheds light on Francis’s impassioned calls for western countries to receive refugees and immigrants, regardless of security or other domestic concerns. In his fuller thinking, this sort of open-borders hospitality is not just a Christian obligation and not simply a humanitarian one; it has geopolitical significance and consequences as well. Among other things, these can be seen as condign punishment for the north’s colonial and capitalist insolence. More than once, the pope has ventured the theologically remarkable thought that natural catastrophes might be Nature’s payback for ecological assaults; the same would be true for the contemporary exoduses and migrations that he says occur on a biblical scale today. When one seeks for his understanding of the causes of these dislocations, they regularly are traced back to the global north and economic powers-that-be, including arms manufacturers and traders who are typically cast as malign fomenters of conflict and war for the sake of profit. They sometimes appear to serve as a synecdoche for the larger north-driven system.

We thus come to This Economy Kills. Several of the volume’s fifteen chapter titles are quotations from the pope himself and indicate the character—blunt or crude, indignant and inflammatory—of much of his economic and social thinking. We read of “The Imperialism of Money” and “The Globalization of Indifference”; about “A Finance That Feeds on Itself” and the sad fate of Catholic “Social Doctrine in a World Governed by Financial Technocrats”; and, ratcheting up the rhetoric, that “Such an Economy Kills”; and, even more lethally, of “‘Economic Systems That Must Make War In Order to Survive.’”

Contained in these slogans is a provocative portrait. Francis sees both “ideology” and “reality” at work in today’s economic order. His basic move is to contrast what’s said with what actually happens.

According to the pontiff, an analysis of today’s economic system should begin by listening to what is said on its behalf. The system has an explanatory and justificatory “theory.” However, as another key term, “ideology,” indicates, something is amiss with the theory: It must be set against “the real economy,” and when this is done, its falsity is evident.

The theory is that of “the free market,” a market said to be “absolutely autonomous”; as such, it is “deified.” It is unclear whether the pope means to say that free-market theorists believe the market should be free—that is, run according to inherent economic laws with minimal state or political interference; or whether he means to say that theorists believe today’s market is free. Surely free-market theorists would never make the latter claim. But the pontiff often seems to imagine that they do—which has the effect of heightening the contrast between free-market theory and economic reality. That reality, according to Francis, is often more accurately called “slavery” than freedom.

Free-market theory posits its own version of the common good by asserting “a trickle-down” effect whereby “every economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably bring about greater equity and global inclusiveness.” But, says the pope, the global economic system has quite another effectual truth. To begin with, it is dominated by “finance,” by the idolatrous love of lucre and by institutions and instruments bent on maximizing profit. Adjectives Francis applies to finance include “speculative”; “anonymous” and “impersonal”; “global” and “imperial”; “barbarous”; and even “terrorist.” This entirely negative list appears adequately to convey his view of financial markets and operations.

With its heady abstractions and frenetic search for huge gains by nanosecond deals, finance is heedless of “the real economy,” the one in which the vast majority of people labor and work. Or don’t work: Speculative markets have consigned millions to unemployment. For the pope, the truth of the real economy is couched in terms of “inequality,” which is usually “stark,” and by “exclusion” rather than inclusion. This brings us to the book’s titular claim: This financialized economy “kills.” Its lethality comes in more than one form. By depriving people of work and hope, it kills both body and soul. Hinting at still darker powers, Francis more than once speaks of “the empire of money with its demonic effects.” He draws an imperious conclusion: “today we also have to say ‘thou shall not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

This globally disastrous economy feeds a “culture” the pope characterizes equally harshly. The culture has three aspects. For the haves, the economy produces a “culture of comfort which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which … offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference.” The question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is met with a shrug. The ostensibly fortunate few also experience a “culture of prosperity [which] deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle.”

The spiritually deadening effects, however, do not end with addiction to novelty and gawking at misfortune. Today’s economy generates “a throw-away culture” with particularly lethal results. These begin with great material waste, including waste of food, but encompass whole classes of human beings:

We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.”

This is the necessary result of a basic anthropological error: “human beings are … considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” This utilitarian view of human beings does not stop with the economically exploitable, with workers and laborers. Other categories of human beings are excluded as it were a priori by the criterion. The pope instances “children” and “the old” in this dismissed category. Callous disregard of them is the ultimate in a utilitarian, even Darwinian, attitude. Or almost the ultimate: The unborn are the chief victims of this attitude, as the pope does not fail to point out.

Pope John Paul II spoke of “a culture of death” in connection with abortion and euthanasia, Pope Benedict XVI of “a culture of relativism” in connection with truth. Francis adds his own death-dealing cultures, this time keyed to the presuppositions of what he calls “modern anthropocentrism” and its manifestation in a global techno-economic system. This leads to the issue of Francis’s view of the current relationship between the spiritual and structural orders.

Francis typically finds some “attitude” or vice underlying real-world evils, some form of idolatry—starting with “pride” or “mastery,” and continuing to “greed” and the “lust for power.” These are said to be the beginning of a(n unspecified) “chain” of events, of actions and inactions, leading to an indicted episode or situation. Spiritual attitudes, in other words, need worldly instruments—in this case, the instruments of the global economy. Yet this causal-instrumental relationship does not convey the pope’s more characteristic claims. He tends to hypostatize the “the global system,” to make the system itself the malevolent, maleficent agent of the evils he discerns: “This economy kills!” To be sure, it embodies previous evil attitudes and choices. But at a certain point it operates on its own, developing the logic of decisions and choices made earlier, forming even its beneficiaries after its malign image and likeness. It is nearly irresistible, both in its material dimensions and in its capture of the social imaginary.

At both levels, then, spiritual and structural, Francis is given to what Tocqueville called the characteristic vice of the democratic historian: identifying general causes and slighting particular ones. Moreover, as the encompassing phrase “techno-economic” indicates, he finds it difficult to acknowledge specifically political causes in his analyses, whether structural or motivational. He maintains that “the global economic system” is the hegemon of the world, and that politics and politicians regularly serve it. In this respect, there is something to the charge that his worldview is “Marxian,” though he does not call for the expropriation of capital. Of the three candidates for chief explanatory parameter of the human world—politics (Aristotle), economics (Marx), and culture (Benedict XVI)—he puts economics in the saddle, with culture riding just behind.

According to the pontiff, however, everything must be bent to serve the poor. After Christ and the Church, they are the light of the world. In today’s world, they reveal its godawful truth. They are the key to his reading of the signs of the time.

Paul Seaton teaches philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland.

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