Pope Francis I is quite the soccer aficionado, and how would you like to be the team going up against his favorite squad – kid you not – the Saints of San Lorenzo? Talk about an unfair advantage.
Humor aside, recently, there has been large amounts of liberal media fawning over the Holy Father’s comments on capitalism as if he’s the first pope ever to speak out about economic justice. In fact, he is continuing an unbroken tradition handed down by his predecessors going back over a century to when “is the Pope Italian?” was still a valid reference to the obvious. As writer Rebecca Hamilton points out:
I’ve read Papal Encyclicals calling for economic justice going all the way back to Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. The message Pope Leo gave in that Encyclical has been reiterated by Pope after Pope since then, including a passionate Encyclical issued by Pope John Paul II on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum called, aptly enough, Centesimus Annus: On the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum. I urge you to read both these encyclicals if you are interested in what the Church teaches concerning economic matters.
Francis’ immediate predecessor Pope Benedict, in his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), wrote:
(I)t is helpful to observe that business enterprise involves a wide range of values, becoming wider all the time. The continuing hegemony of the binary model of market-plus-State has accustomed us to think only in terms of the private business leader of a capitalistic bent on the one hand, and the State director on the other. In reality, business has to be understood in an articulated way. There are a number of reasons, of a meta-economic kind, for saying this. Business activity has a human significance, prior to its professional one. It is present in all work, understood as a personal action, an “actus personae,” which is why every worker should have the chance to make his contribution knowing that in some way “he is working ‘for himself.’” With good reason, Paul VI taught that “everyone who works is a creator.” It is in response to the needs and the dignity of the worker, as well as the needs of society, that there exist various types of business enterprise, over and above the simple distinction between “private” and “public”. Each of them requires and expresses a specific business capacity. In order to construct an economy that will soon be in a position to serve the national and global common good, it is appropriate to take account of this broader significance of business activity.
As Solomon noted, there is nothing new under the sun. The Church has long believed in, and spoken out on, a partnership model between capitalism and state, the two working together for the benefit of all.
Bringing in two of capitalism’s leading lights over the years, namely Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) and F.A. Hayek (The Road to Serfdom), reinforces the Church’s teaching that neither state overreach nor unbridled corporatism (capitalism used not by the individual or collective of individuals for self-improvement, but rather to enrich a few at the expense of the many) are workable. Hayek, who decidedly leaned toward unfettered capitalism, offers this clarification of a common misconception:
Both competition and central direction become poor and inefficient tools if they are incomplete; they are alternative principles used to solve the same problem, and a mixture of the two means that neither will really work and that the result will be worse than if either system had been consistently relied upon. Or, to express it differently, planning and competition can be combined only by planning for competition but not by planning against competition.
Smith succinctly said:
To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.
Compare this with the Holy Father’s words:
It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.
Again, there is nothing new in what Pope Francis has said.
Business is, unless one is offering a truly unique product or service, a competitive enterprise. For example, let’s say you need to buy a new pair of shoes. Chances are excellent there will be several stores in your area, all of which sell shoes. So, you go shopping. You weigh the price, product quality and service offered by each, then make your decision as to which pair of shoes to buy from which store. Simple.
In this scenario, someone wins (the store from which you bought the shoes) and others lose (the stores from which you didn’t buy a pair of shoes). This is inevitable. Unless you’ve got a large amount of disposable income at your beck and call, you’re not going to buy something from every store. You can’t. You do what you can, and that’s that.
Unfortunately, whenever government decides to play equalizer things tend to go awry in a hurry. Why? Look at the history of government intervention in capitalistic endeavors. From this, it becomes clear that government will either dictate from which store you must buy shoes, eliminate competition by mandating a fixed price for the shoes or, via taxes and/or fees, extract earned money from all parties involved, distributing this to others in order to eliminate the “unfairness” of everyone not being able to afford the shoes they want. Not shoes period; just the ones they want. Or, nationalize the whole thing so instead of you walking in your new pair of shoes, new pair of shoes walks you. (Variation on the old “in Russia…” joke.)
To summarize, the Holy See hasn’t offered the blistering condemnation of capitalism many on the left or right believe it to have done. It has proclaimed the dignity and rights of man come not from the state nor from any economic system. Rather, these come from God. All should be given the opportunity to better themselves and their families while remaining alert to two fundamentals: not falling prey to greed, and not thwarting business from its goals. Both are poison to the human spirit and life’s realities. Pope Francis isn’t kicking capitalism around. He is saying put Christ first. From this, all falls into its proper place.