Some American conservatives, issuing a different sort of papal bull, have accused the pope of “pure Marxism” and being “the Catholic Church’s Obama.” In the process, they are demonstrating how ideology can become a consuming substitute for faith. Defenders of market economics — and I count myself one — should recognize that global capitalism is the most powerful force of modernity, with a mixed influence on traditional ideals and institutions. It has taken hundreds of millions of people out of poverty; it has also encouraged individualism and loosened bonds of family and community. It has produced innovation and extended lives. But in the absence of certain social conditions — the rule of law, equal opportunity, effective public administration — capitalism can result in caste-like inequality.
As my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. points out, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere naturally has a more skeptical take on globalization. He empathizes with the marginalized: exploited migrants, bonded laborers, people in sexual slavery. This is the dark side of markets — the sale of life and dignity. And Francis vividly warns against the “globalization of indifference.”
The pope is hardly a neo-Marxist. He talks of business as “a noble vocation.” He rejects a “welfare mentality.” But he argues that market outcomes are not always identical to social justice and calls for public “investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life.” Those surprised that Catholic social thought is incompatible with libertarianism haven’t been paying attention — for decades. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI said the same. And all warned of the danger when a mode of economic exchange becomes a mind-set. Absent a moral commitment to human dignity, justice and compassion, capitalism is conducive to materialism, individualism and selfishness. It is a system that depends on virtues it does not create.