Most observers, Catholic or not, recognized the sea-change brought about by Pope Francis I. An Argentinian Cardinal, Francis supposed a move left for the Catholic Church from the days of Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II. While Francis hasn’t shocked many with his bending on social issues, his most boisterous attacks have been on economic issues – a move leftward he restated by declaring “unfettered capitalism” a “new tyranny.”
The move isn’t exactly unprecedented. Pope Benedict XVI voiced deep reservations about modern capitalism. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Benedict reiterated “progressive” stances in areas of public unions and economic redistribution; areas often overshadowed within the media by Benedict’s undoubted commitment to baroque liturgies and traditional moral norms. The election of Pope Francis caused everyone from full-time Vaticanologists to the average Catholic in the pew to recognize a shift, a change of emphasis and style, and a laser-like focus on poverty from the new pope.
The shift was evident from Francis’ first act – a choosing of his new name. By declaring himself “Francis,” Jorge Mario Bergoglio indicated that he wished to associate himself with the saint who is most identified with the poor. Francis stated he wanted “a Church that is poor and for the poor.” Upon first visiting the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis reportedly commented that “three hundred people could live here,” and indicated he would not be among them, choosing to reside in a two-room suite in a nearby hotel used by visitors to the Vatican. He still wears the worn black shoes he brought with him from Buenos Aires.
Francis also brought with him a virulent strain of socialist Catholicism, as he demonstrated early in his papacy denouncing “savage capitalism” at a soup kitchen. The comment, as with many others, stands out against especially American Catholic bishops who speak for the benefits of the free market, rather than simply decry it’s excesses.
Francis’ foray into economic edicts likely leaves traditional, conservative Catholics in something of a bind. For years, they have denounced “cafeteria Catholics” on the left, those who differ with the Church on issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion rights. Now, Francis seems to suggest that conservatives either change their public policy positions – supporting economic policies that afflict rather than relieve the plight of those in poverty – or stand in the cafeteria line.
To be fair, Catholic economic conservatives like George Weigel and Robert Sirico (author of the excellent book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy) have largely existed on the periphery of Catholic teachings. Pope Benedict XVI was not shy about voicing his criticisms of capitalism. In his last World Day of Peace message, issued on January 1, Benedict condemned “a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Pope Francis’ defenders can claim (not completely incorrectly) that Francis is building on what was said by his predecessors going all the way back to Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th Century.
So is all that is different about Francis not substance but merely style? Only if one uses a revisionist lens. As Pius XI said of Leo XIII:
Leo XIII’s whole endeavor was to adjust this economic regime to the standards of true order; whence it follows that the system itself is not to be condemned. And surely it is not vicious of its very nature; but it violates right order whenever capital so employs the working or wage-earning classes as to divert business and economic activity entirely to its own arbitrary will and advantage, without any regard to the human dignity of the workers, the social character of economic life, social justice, and the common good.
In short, Catholicism’s social doctrine not only does not condemn capitalism, but falls just short of officially endorsing it. Only the “excesses” of capitalism, however fleeting a definition that may be, are subject to criticism. Is Francis’ attack on “unfettered capitalism” in keeping with this school of thought? Not when Francis seems lacking any major difference between excesses and exact practice.
“[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
Given Francis’ background, some have suggested he embraces “Liberation Theology” or “Christianized Marxism.” If so, the move represents a major historical departure from Vatican tradition by injecting Christ as a political figure. The Vatican under Pope John Paul II took a hardline against any theology with even a hint of Marxist analysis. Francis has even hosted liberation theory’s founder, Gustavo Gutierrez, while attempting to straddle the line between seemingly conciliatory and outright supportive. With his recent rhetoric, it would appear the effort to straddle has tipped decisively against an apolitical Church.
While conservative and liberal Catholics might have been able to parse traditional Catholic social teaching in ways that suited either their defense or opposition of modern capitalism and globalization, Pope Francis’ words are so direct, they making parsing all but impossible.
When even conservative Catholics are desperately defending Francis and trying to distance him from his obvious move left, you know the debate over the direction of the Church has been lost and the defeated are merely trying to mitigate the coming ideological pains of a Church lifted off its sociopolitical moorings.