Public Square

What Does The Pope Say About "Capitalism?"

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Photo courtesy of the Catholic Church (England and Wales)

Pope Francis’s new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) has created a media firestorm, with far more heat than light.

My own policy with any papal statement is pretty simple. I ignore media reports until I’ve read an authorized translation of the actual text. Media presentations of any papal statement tend to cram everything into the two-party political dynamic of American public life and invariably misrepresent the statement.

In the case of this apostolic letter, however, there are plenty of juicy bits that are easily tossed like chum into the waters of American politics.

You might have gotten the impression that the letter is about economics and nothing else. Actually, the letter ranges widely over a number of topics. It’s just that the economic sections tend to be the parts that the mainstream media likes, and so broadcasts.

My opinion of the letter is virtually identical to that of Sam Gregg in his piece at National Review Online and Ross Douthat in the New York Times. I also appreciate the comments by Fr. Robert Sirico, Jim Pethokoukis, and James Poulos. For evidence that it’s ok to challenge the Pope – even if you’re Catholic – on empirical questions of economics, check out Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s piece at the Wall Street Journal.

For a fully informed opinion, however, there’s no substitute for simply reading the apostolic letter in its entirety – though even here, glitches are common. (Did the Pope really write the equivalent of “trickle-down,” for instance?) For Christian advocates of free enterprise, I would commend one exegetical tool in grappling with what Francis writes on matters economic. With every barb directed against, say, consumerism or materialism, ask yourself whether he’s actually criticizing the views you hold.

My guess is that in many cases, you’ll find that he doesn’t really have private property rights, free exchange, and economic freedom in his crosshairs. He is targeting something else, and that something else is not very clearly defined.

Having read the letter, I think it would have been more challenging to real champions of the free market if it had made some important distinctions—especially the distinction between the cronyism so common in South America (and increasingly in North America), and real free enterprise. The New York Post editorial gets this right: “In truth, the pope’s real enemy is crony capitalism.” Unfortunately, the apostolic letter doesn’t distinguish “capitalism” from “cronyism,” so the document may prove less challenging, and so less “prophetic,” than if it had handled these matters with precision.

What do you think about the pope’s apostolic letter? Leave your comments here.

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