Critics of Pope Francis have been feverishly presenting their personal and institutional interpretations of his encyclical, “Laudato Si'”, in media outlets all too eager to fuel a public brawl over the intended meaning of his message. As the Pope’s September visit to the U.S. draws near, the speculation and spin promises to only increase in both volume and hyperbole. Chief among the critics are self-described “free market” defenders who insist that Pope Francis’ calls for greater reflection about how our economic system and lifestyles are exacerbating the marginalization of the world’s poor are actually calls for a global socialist revolution and the dismantling of capitalism. These criticism are a cheap rhetorical strategy intended to distract us from the genuine self-reflection the Holy Father is advocating by creating bogeymen where none exist. It is very similar to the inaccurate claim of those who insist that the pope refers to capitalism as the “dung of the devil”.
While some would like to characterize his encyclical on “care for our common home” as an economic and political manifesto from the global south, Francis has hardly traded in his mitre for a black beret. At its core, the pope’s critique of free market capitalism in this encyclical and in his previous writings is consistent with what has been articulated by his predecessors and by Catholic social teaching over its well-developed tradition. Profits do not trump people and planet; greed and unbridled growth must be tempered by the promotion and protection of the common good. These canons are written in the Holy Bible and existed way before they were adopted by any political theorists.
In re-articulating the vision for an economic system that is aligned more consistently with Catholic social teaching and scripture, that is founded on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, that is rooted in self-governing associations and institutions coming together to cooperate, that share risk and responsibility and generate societal, political and economic structures and institutions, and that are respectful of justice, human dignity and freedom, Pope Francis is calling us to an innovative redirection of the prevailing economic system. He is asking if capitalism can prosper within this framework. I believe the Holy Father thinks it can, but perhaps not in its present form. What capitalism, as it is currently being practiced, is lacking, is a human face.
In issuing “Laudato Si'” the Pope has asked us, for instance, to consider the costs associated with “rapidification”: the process of globalization driven by technological and communications advances made without circumspection or consideration of its consequences. He has asked us to question a world where markets function 24/7, trillions of dollars in financial transactions take place at lightning speed daily, and where the sanity of growth for growth’s sake stands unquestioned.
Is this some radical threat, or perhaps a reminder to be careful what you pray for and to whom? Is this an insurgency, or a call for us to examine whether those advances, that speed, that growth, has both costs and benefits, but that the costs, more often than not, are borne by our most vulnerable sisters and brothers?
Does Pope Francis wish to incite a political uprising when he asks us to search for “creative alternatives” to a global society that deifies markets and multinational corporate entities yet sanctions the suffering of the planet and its ecosystems and the exploitation of the people they were designed to serve? Is this a call for revolution, or perhaps a call for greater moral responsibility and introspection and reformation of an economic model that has forgotten its social purpose and been corrupted by greed and “indifference”?
I believe it is the latter, and that the responsibility for issuing this call should fall not only to Pope Francis and faith leaders, but to us all. For while we may wish to stand in defense of the many virtues of capitalism or any other economic and political system, in the end, systems without, as the pope says, “a human face” have no intrinsic value to society.
Pope Francis and Catholic social teaching have offered a number of general principles and guidelines to direct the debate about how to reform our current version of free market capitalism, but there is nothing necessarily proprietary or revolutionary among them: the principles of ethics, integrity, accountability, transparency, honesty, justice and sustainability are shared by all the world’s faith traditions and all would agree they must be at the nucleus of any system, economic or otherwise. We have seen too many examples where these mandates have been set aside or been given lip service in favor of maximizing short-term profits for too few stakeholders.
Pope Francis prays for systems that provide financial services and facilitate commercial transactions that will equitably advance human well-being, promote the common good and make the protection of our common home, the earth, a top priority. Aren’t we all praying for this same thing?
In calling for deeper reflection about how the current economic and political systems work or don’t on behalf of the greater good, the Holy Father may have stepped into a media maelstrom but I am not entirely sure he did so unwittingly. I believe he wanted to stir the pot, but being a pot stirrer does not make him a political firebrand.
If free market capitalism exacerbates injustice then it must be reformed; if globalization facilitates the exploitation of workers in supply chains and translates into the exportation of indifference and exclusion then it must be re-evaluated. That Francis shows empathy for and compassion with the world’s poor and that it causes him to challenge the systems that may be reinforcing poverty or destroying God’s creation doesn’t mean he thinks of capitalism as the bogeyman or that he’s a disciple of Castro or Che Guevara.
What it does mean is that, from where he sits, the status quo isn’t working too well. And when the rhetoric dies down, those less defensive about his core messages will understand that and, hopefully, rise to the challenges he is correctly setting before