On Capitalism

On Capitalism September 14, 2015

Ross Douthat has recently observed that Trump’s popularity is a sign that neither of the major parties represents the complexities of political opinion in the United States. No party and virtually no candidates are both pro-life and pro-Obamacare. But many citizens are both. This should be kept in mind during the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, whose pronouncements on modern economic systems have long defied the categories of American political discourse. It is not that Francis transcends American right/left polarities; it’s simply that he is operating in a quite different intellectual and moral universe. 

That intellectual and moral universe is partly that of Latin America. It is also, crucially, that of the church. After all, critiques of capitalism that are rarely heard in the US, except from Bernie Sanders, are found in “arch conservative” Catholics. In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, John Paul II wrote:

“Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system that recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is in the affirmative. . . . If by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework that places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and that sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative. Vast multitudes live in conditions of great material and moral poverty. There is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could refuse to even consider these problems, blindly entrusting their solution to market forces.”

It should also be noted that this balanced stance is difficult to maintain in practice. As Manuel Vasquez writes in Globalizing the Sacred, John Paul “always relied on modern media to enhance his extraordinary charisma and communication with the faithful. Before he spoke of technological dangers in Aztec Stadium, the arena’s screen blazed with greetings to the Pope transmitted from all over the hemisphere. His criticisms of materialism were part of a trip underwritten by Pepsi-Cola and several other companies. John Paul won his battle with Communism, but his struggle to mount a spiritual critique of capitalism and a global commercial culture promises to be an even more complex task.”

Francis’s visit will inevitably display the same tensions and ironies. His global superstardom is only possible because of the global culture industry. That is not a charge of hypocrisy. It is only another index of the challenges of maintaining a balanced political and moral position on modern economics.


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