Opinion

A Pope For Capitalists, Too

Elise Daniel Senior Writer, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics

Some call Pope Francis a “pope for the poor,” but a “pope for capitalists”? That’s a new one. 

The pontiff’s conservative support is waning in the US, and his critiques of capitalism are likely to blame. In Evangelli Gaudium, he calls trickle-down economic theories “naïve.” In Laudato Si, he criticizes allowing the invisible hand to regulate the economy.

Conservatives who cringe at his economics may be too quick to dismiss Pope Francis as a Marxist in papal vestments — today he distanced himself from that perception. Indeed, a majority of his comments may not be as anti-capitalist as the media portrays him. When it comes to social justice, Francis doesn’t take a “top-down” approach; he’s more of a “bottom-up” kind of pope.

Though he acknowledges the role of government to protect the disadvantaged, he calls people to voluntary action at the local level as the first line of defense. In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, @Pontifex tweeted on September 8th: “May every parish and religious community in Europe host a refugee family. #Jubilee #refugeeswelcome.”

By calling on local churches and families rather than government, Francis is painting a vision of subsidiarity, a principle of Catholic social teaching that asserts societal problems should be addressed at the lowest possible level of society.

In an address to political and economic leaders in Ecuador on the subject of subsidiarity earlier this year, Francis emphasized that individual freedom must be respected while each person and social organization must take up its specific role to contribute to the common good. This bottom-up approach is a papal message free market capitalists can get on board with.

During his homily in Cuba, he said, “caring for others out of love […] means putting our brothers and sisters at the center. Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ in trying to help. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” Through subsidiarity comes solidarity and personal relationships. As Francis depicts, true love of neighbor requires looking into the eyes of another and touching their hands – something a government handout can’t do.

The pontiff may be just as concerned with freedom absent virtue as an over-reaching government that steps in front of local charity efforts in parish communities. His primary concern is human dignity and virtue, as should be the concern of the Catholic capitalist.

What is a trickle-down theory absent charity? Or the invisible hand without sound principles? I hope even the worst capitalist wouldn’t want a morally unfettered society idolizing money above all else as Francis warns against. When the human and moral aspects are removed, free market economics becomes just another ideology.

During the Pope’s visit to the U.S., conservatives might expect him to criticize capitalism, but I suspect his actions will speak louder than words. He plans to visit with prisoners, disadvantaged children, homeless, and refugees, showing a passion for service over ideology.

To Francis, neither anarchy nor government is the ultimate solution — it’s the gospel working through each individual on a personal level. Though he has room to speak to the merits of the free enterprise system and what it has done to help the poor, his rhetoric is a good reminder to all that freedom requires more of us, not less.

Though the pontiff probably wouldn’t appreciate the new nickname, a “pope for capitalists,” free market-lovers may welcome him to America less begrudgingly for these points of agreement, remembering that perhaps he’s more of a bottom-up kind of pope than the media portrays him.

Elise Daniel is a senior writer at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. Follower her on Twitter at @eliseamyxdaniel.