Since his election, there has been no shortage of skepticism of the teleology of capitalism and the free market expressed by Pope Francis. In an era of hyper-partisanship and staunch ideology, an era in which any questioning of an unbridled market is considered heresy and socialist sedition, Pope Francis stands at the precipice with a steady hand. Despite the charges of his critics, these papal concerns are hardly new.
Yet his criticisms have drawn the ire of conservatives who hold the free market and capitalism as a whole in high esteem, including Rush Limbaugh and Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who had the temerity to threaten to stop giving to charity if the pope doesn’t shut up. This is the problem: conservatives continue to jibe and openly disagree with the pope over the economy, yet in so doing they question the lone bastion of Western social conservatism, which is to say the Church, thus playing into the conservative caricature of standing for nothing but wealth. If not corrected, this will prove detrimental for conservatism.
What is Pope Francis’ great offense? With reference to what he has referred to repeatedly as the “idolatry of money,” he has done nothing but pointed out what so many have illustrated before – that for all its good, capitalism is rife with abuse. Of course, this questioning of the free-market tends to be interpreted much more like progressive rhetoric than conservative, which is why outcry from the right has begun to grow. For speaking on principle about putting profit before human dignity, critics of the Pope are now attempting to paint him as a progressive sympathizer, and therefore not one whose economic opinion is to be considered. This is but a smoke screen. The Pope’s skepticism of free-markets and capitalism comes from a place of moral concern, which immediately refocuses the argument into a choice between the soul and the wallet.
What has Pope Francis said about the free-markets that are so subversive to conservatism? Below are a few of the more heavily circulated excerpts from his recently released papal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” (E.G. 53)
“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading.” (E.G.53)
“We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex. 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” (E.G. 55)
“Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision… In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response, which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” (E.G. 57)
The Pope is not chosen for his economical acumen, but for his ability to lead the Church according to the dictates of the Holy Scriptures. Accordingly, his interpretation of things such as economics comes not from a dollars and cents point of view, but rather from a moral point of view centered not on profits but instead on human dignity.
Modern conservatives don’t often speak about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident and conservative intellectual who left his mark on the waning years of the Cold War era by being both a staunch advocate of democracy and an honest critic of free-market zealotry. In June 1978 he delivered the commencement speech to the graduating class of Harvard University. His thesis was that the free-market can be and regularly is abused and, what’s more, has made us over-dependent on modern conveniences. To contrast, he points out that his Russian countrymen, though growing up in barren poverty, are equipped to handle the slings and arrows of life. He suggests that the West uses the free-market to escape the one inevitable reality of the lives of all men – pain. What’s more, in our retreat from the inevitable we cause the suffering of others in our wake. Our comfort comes at the expense of others. As Solzhenitsyn’s biographer phrased it, “Solzhenitsyn prophesied the unsustainability of global consumerism and the impending catastrophe that awaited a culture hell-bent on hedonism at the expense of human community and the natural environment.”