Pope Francis: At Odds with his Predecessors

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By FTN Editorial Team

Pope Francis has manifested on numerous occasions his anti-capitalist vision of the world. In his latest encyclical, entitled Fratelli Tutti, Francis argues that the COVID-19 crisis exposed inherent problems of the free market system. Given the influence the Pope has all over the globe, his continuous anti-capitalist remarks do a disservice to all of us Catholics who believe in economically free nations. In this week’s column, I try to explain why the Pope’s economic vision is at odds with his predecessors, and the Church’s social doctrine.

Last week, Pope Francis released his third encyclical, entitled Fratelli Tutti. In this letter sent to Catholic bishops all around the world, Pope Francis laid out a lengthy critique of free-market capitalism, arguing that the worldwide pandemic exposed a system that “made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.” And that once the COVID-19 crisis passes, “our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation.” 

This encyclical also reiterated Pope Francis’ belief that societies should become more communal. On this issue, the Pope claims that the “principle of the common use of created goods is the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.” And as a result, “the right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods.”

The Pope’s Anti-Capitalist Paranoia

Francis’ writings in Fratelli Tutti come as no surprise. In the past, the Pope has expressed his anti-capitalist vision on numerous occasions. For instance, Francis has argued that the capitalist system has become intolerable. He argued “farm workers find it intolerable, labourers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable, the earth itself also finds it intolerable,” Building from this premise, Francis has claimed that Catholics should be “against the wild economic liberalism we see today.”

Similarly, Pope Francis has proposed the notion that the economic hardships of Latin America and the rest of the developing world are caused by a new type of colonialism. This neo-colonialism, he says, takes on different faces. At times it appears as the “anonymous influence of corporations, loan agencies, and free trade treaties.” While at other times, it appears as the “imposition of measures of austerity.” But indifferent to its origin, the Pope argues that this new colonialism “always end up tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” 

Ultimately, he couldn’t have better expressed his skepticism towards the market system than in his 2013 book, The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium, where he wrote:

“Some people 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. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Pope Francis: At Odds with his Predecessors

Even though Pope Francis argues that Catholics should reject the market system, such thinking contrasts with his predecessors.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar at the Abigail Adams Institute. Held at Harvard University, the week-long program explored different perspectives about the way civil society and capital influence each other. We touched on a myriad of theories about the way capital is created, used, and acquired. We also discussed various normative positions on the issue, such as whether our modern-day societies are addicted to capital accumulation, whether these societies are being subordinated by the forces of capital, and whether human beings are indeed using their increasing stock of capital to their benefit. As a result, we had the chance to read major contributions from both the right and the left. From socialists, such as Karl Marx’s, Thomas Piketty, and Karl Polanyi to classical liberals par excellence, such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Deirdre McCloskey.

Beyond politics, the seminar also incorporated a different viewpoint of the issue, the theological perspective. Dr. Petranovich and Dr. Zelmanovitz (who led the seminar) encouraged us to dig deeper into classic works about the relationship between capital and religion, such as Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In the book, the German sociologist explains why Protestantism led to the formation of capitalist institutions in Northern European countries. 

Likewise, within the 533-page mandatory reader, the institute included the Catholic church’s thinking about the relationship between capital and civil society. The reader specifically included the writings of three Popes: Leo XIII, Pius XL, and John Paul II. The first one being Pope Leo XIII, who wrote in 1891 what is considered as the foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching, the Rerum Novarum

In this open letter – passed to all Catholic patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops – Pope Leo XIII discussed the mutual duties between labor and capital, in response to the evident tensions that industrial societies were experiencing at the time. In this context, Leo XIII ratifies his support over key capitalist institutions, such as private property, and labor freedom, in the sense of allowing free agreements between employer and employee. Specifically, Pope Leo XIII states:

“it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.”

In this sense, Rerum Novarum explicitly condemns socialists not only for “working on the poor man’s envy of the rich” but also because the collectivization of the property would be “emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.” 

Since Rerum Novarum, the Catholic Church has embraced the basic tenants of the market system, while advocating for mitigating its excesses through the civil society. Leo XIII, for instance, prescribed some remedies to enhance the bargaining power of the working class, more notably, the formation of trade unions and the introduction of the collective bargain. 

Similarly, forty years later, Pope Pius XI wrote his famous encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. In there, he argued that while men must consider the use of their property for “not only their own advantage but also the common good,” “those who seek to restrict the individual character of property ownership to such a degree that in fact they destroy it are mistaken.” Pius XI adds that since the natural law does not define what endeavor works towards the common good, it is the function of man-made institutions to define what endeavors encompass the common good, so society can incentivize them. 

Pope Francis and the Church’s Social Doctrine

After reading these writings, it is safe to say that Pope Francis’ vision of the world is at odds with the predominant thinking of the catholic church, as the Catholic church has firmly opposed the two predominant totalitarian visions of the twentieth-century: socialism and fascism. In 1949, for instance, the Catholic Church issued a decree against communism, which declared Catholics who professed communist doctrine to be excommunicated as apostates from the Christian faith. After all, both types of totalitarianism have tried to replace God with the state. And both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany killed millions of people in the name of their states.

John Paul II, for instance, wrote extensively about the dangers of socialism. John Paul II – who had the experience of living under a totalitarian regime – had the wisdom to understand that despite its flaws, the free market system has been the only one with the capacity to bring prosperity and decency to our world. On the other hand, Pope Francis, as mentioned, completely rejects that capitalism can bring good to the world, even calling it the “dung of the devil.” 

John Paul II extensively wrote about the matter in an encyclical letter entitled Centesimus Annus, written in 1999. In the encyclical, John Paul II vigorously emphasized the blessings of the market economy. Because of it, the letter concluded by encouraging third-world countries to embrace the free market system, which John Paul II defines as an “economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector.”

By Jorge Jraissati

Jorge Jraissati is the president of the Venezuelan Alliance. Graduated at the Wilkes Honors College, Jorge is an economist, political leader, and a fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute. Jorge has been invited as a guest lecturer to over 20 universities, such as Harvard, NYU, and Cambridge