Pope Francis hasn’t been shy about showing his disdain for capitalism and. During his recent trip to Latin America, for example, the pontiff said the the unfettered capitalism is “the dung of the devil.”
Like many others, I’ve complained that the pope is presenting a distorted, incomplete, and naive view of capitalism. But to his credit, Francis has vowed to consider these reactions before his trip the U.S. this September. “I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I must begin studying these criticisms, no?” he said. “Then we shall dialogue about them.”
That dialogue is welcome, though most people aren’t expecting a radical shift in Pope Francis’s views of economics. But what if they did change? What if not only the pope but also the entire Catholic Church embraced free enterprise and free markets?
It may seem unlikely, but it wasn’t that long ago the Catholic Church took the side of repressive and authoritarian regimes over religious liberty. That changed largely because of the United States showed how religious benefited Christians. As Judge John Noonan has observed, “the Declaration on Religious Freedom would not have come into existence without the American contribution and the experiment that began with Madison.”
At Mirror of Justice, Greg Sisk argues that just as the Catholic Church discovered the virtues of religious liberty, eventually the church will appreciate the charisma of democratic capitalism:
The Catholic Church eventually came to appreciate that authoritarian government, especially as to religious freedom rights, created the environment for abuses and ultimately weakened faithfulness.
Likewise, the Church eventually will come to understand that authoritarian government approaches to economics also are rife with opportunities for abuse (crony capitalism, structuring the system to benefit political and economic oligarchies, rent-seeking by favored economic and political actors, etc.) and ultimately undermine prosperity.
But, just as was true with the slow evolution of the Church’s views on religious liberty, the Church will take some time to appreciate in its teaching that democratic capitalism has been the greatest engine for prosperity in the history of the world and creates the free space for moral structures and intermediary institutions, such as the Church.
As Catholic philosopher Michael Novak observed some 35 years ago in his classic work Toward a Theology of the Corporation at 1 (AEI 1981), “[m]ost theologians of the last two hundred years have approached democratic capitalism in a premodern, precapitalist, predemocratic way; or else they have been socialists, usually romantic and utopian rather than empirical.” Novak was one of the first to deprecate “the anticapitalist bias of the Roman Catholic Church,” which has been plagued with “systemic misperceptions about the nature of democratic capitalism.” Id. at 9-10.
A Church that is rightly and genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor cannot afford to ignore the realities of economics.