Acton Institute Powerblog

Pope Benedict slams capitalism?

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A friend sent me a link to a Reuters story on Pope Benedict XVI’s New Year’s homily. The article carried this headline: “Pope hopes for 2013 of peace, slams unbridled capitalism.”

It is always a good rule of thumb with media reports like this to read the actual speech or document being cited, and not just go by the headline. From the Reuters report one gets the impression that the point of the statement and its theme is that the “Pope slams capitalism.”  When you read this in context you immediately see that Pope Benedict is actually calling for conversion. The operative phrase employed by the Holy Father in his homily is, “The prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated capitalism, various forms of terrorism and criminality.”

I say in Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for the Free Economy that “global capitalism can’t of itself supply the cultural and moral formation worthy of the human person … our increasing interconnectedness holds great potential for offenses against human dignity. Advances in technology and communication can make it easier to sell pornography – or to traffic in human beings…” and so on.

In other words, I stand with the pope, that sin (what he calls in this case a “selfish and individualistic mindset”) can find expression in the context of human liberty lacking moral orientation, (what he calls in this instance, “global capitalism”).

Is the pope saying that capitalism is in and of itself “selfish and individualistic”? No. Can it express the vices (and for that matter the virtues) of people living in free economies? Yes.

That is why the Acton Institute exists — to promote virtuous free economies.

Rev. Robert Sirico Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Paul Doetsch

    Thank you, Father for framing this issue with the clarity and context that issues of substance deserve.

    • Martial_Artist

      I find it unfortunate that the terms “unbridled” and “capitalism” are so frequently linked without the writer (or speaker) defining specifically what is meant by that adjective. What many users of the phrase intend is not actually capitalism (i.e., a “free market” as economists—especially those of the Austrian school—use that term).

      To have a truly “free market” requires that the government focus on strict enforcement of several areas of the law, specifically:

      • The Rule of Law, including ensuring that all laws are written such that they apply equally to everyone, disregarding the attributes of each actor in the market, and considering only the actions of each party in disputes (i.e., the law must be blind as to who the parties are, but not to what each party’s actions were),

      • protection of private property, lawfully acquired,

      • The freedom freely to associate, which implicitly includes the freedom to not associate, and,

      • The freedom of two or more parties to engage in mutual exchange.

      If government fails to limit its involvement in the market to those areas of the law and regulations, then what you have is not capitalism (i.e., a “free market”), but rather a market that is, to a greater or lesser degree (depending upon the scope of government’s infringement of the aforementioned legal principles, a form of socialism.

      As economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has effectively proven in his book A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, “there are only two possible archetypes in economic affairs: socialism and capitalism. All systems are combinations of those two types. The capitalist model he defines as pure protection of private property, free association, and exchange – no exceptions. All deviations from that ideal are species of socialism, with public ownership and interference with trade.”
      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

  • Philip Pullella

    Hello Father Sirico, I am quite puzzled why you omitted “unbridled” from your headline and from the thrust of your criticism. There is no doubt that Benedict is not criticizing capitalism but “anything goes” capitalism, as did John Paul, who did it in even stronger terms.

    i find your phrase “with media reports like this” unjustified and gratuitous. I am surprised to find myself put that that league. You say yourself in your post that the pope “is actually calling for conversion” . Conversion from what? Perhaps from the type of selfishness (read sin, perhaps?) that can lead to unbridled capitalism of the madoff/milken type. Your readers might be interested in this Time story “25 people to blame for the financial crisis”,28804,1877351_1877350_1877337,00.html

    Were these people guilty of “capitalism” of the type that gave my immigrant parents a chance to find a new life in the US 60 years ago? I don’t think so. Were they guilty of the sin of selfishness that can find its find its expression in unbridled capitalism? or what the pope calls “selfish and individualistic mindset” and what you call call “human liberty lacking moral orientation”? You be the judge of that.

    For the benefit of your readers here are the key parts of my story. I believe it speaks for itself.

    (quote) Earlier in his homily, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics decried “hotbeds of tension and conflict
    caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor”.
    He also denounced “the prevalence of a
    selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an
    unregulated capitalism, various forms of terrorism and criminality”.
    Benedict said he was convinced of “humanity’s innate vocation to peace” despite many problems and setbacks. A personal relationship with God can help all believers deal with what he called the “darkness and anguish” that sometimes defines human existence.
    “This is the inner peace that we want in the midst of events in history that are sometimes tumultuous and confused, events that sometimes leave us shaken,” he said.

    In his full message for the peace day, the pope called for a new economic model and ethical regulations for markets, saying the global financial crisis was proof that capitalism does not protect society’s weakest (endquote)

    • Brian Wood

      Where do “unbridled capitalism” or “anything goes capitalism” exist? Also, please explain how two individuals having different incomes is “inequality.” I would think you might need a few more facts beyond income amount to make a claim like that.

    • I think Father Sirico wanted to highlight that it was only the “unbridled” sort which the Pope was slamming.

      In comparing free market capitalism with all other sorts of economy, it seems like the greedy & selfish under communism were able to become Party members and live better than their neighbors as well as making their neighbors, and themselves, live less well. Under tribalism, the greedy strong become the kings/ chiefs, or their main supports, and use their strength to take from others. Under capitalism, the greedy become company owners where their greed for selling high priced junk is met by customers wanted low-cost quality, and only compromises result in deals — with customer choice reducing the ability of the greedy to make excess profits.

      The greedy serve the poor more under capitalism than under other systems.

      I believe the problem is more in human greed and selfishness, rather than capitalism. A system of freedom and easy wealth does give lots of freedom and ability to get rich to the greedy. That doesn’t mean the system would be improved with less freedom. Tho many envious folk think less freedom would be better.

  • RogerMcKinney

    What is unbridled capitalism? Capitalism is the rule of law, respect for property, equality and equality before the law. So what would unbridled capitalism look like? It would be something like unbridled love or justice or peace.

    Of course, the Pope may be using the socialist definition of capitalism: theft. unbridled theft is a bad thing.

  • There are 2 main types of morality, one of which is most clearly stated by Machiavelli:
    The End justifies the Means.

    If you don’t like this morality, you should be more accepting of the contrary:
    The Means justifies the Ends.

    What if honest, peaceful means results in an unequal End that one doesn’t like?
    Does one then support non-peaceful Means to get a more desired End?

    Whenever one supports gov’t action towards any End, that support is for non-peaceful Means. No gov’t action, especially not justice, is “peaceful”.

    Justice, for instance punishment for thieves, is needed for civilization. But no Justice System is, nor can be, peaceful to those who are guilty but claim innoncence.

  • P S

    Fr. Sirico,

    But wouldn’t you go further and say that capitalism has a tendency (of itself) to curb vice and promote virtue? Your post here makes capitalism seem “apedagogical.” Yes it cannot *fully* supply moral formation, but doesn’t it actually positively support good moral formation? What are the limits to this? It seems the pedagogical issue is lacking from the Pope’s speech.


    • DontMakeMeComeDownThere

      Not that I can answer for Fr. Sirico, but the Catholic answer is no. The free market can be exploited by porn producers as much as it can virtuous entrepreneurs. People are teachers, as well as producers and consumers. The un- or less-regulated market does allow for greater freedom and growth, for sure, but it must be animated by people of virtue both taking risks and rewarding both good business and moral decision making.

      The agents, and thus the limits, are human persons.