Capitalism and Catholicism

Author: Jonathan Warren

Capitalism and Catholicism

The annual International Conference on Archbishop Oscar Romero at Notre Dame came at a particularly opportune time this year.

The event, which occurred Sept. 25-27, began in 1985 and is organized by Latin American/North American Church Concerns (LANACC), an arm of the Kellogg Institute.

This year, the event came just months after Pope Francis lifted Archbishop Romero’s block to sainthood. The Pope told journalists on a plane in August that he hopes Archbishop Romero’s beatification can “be done quickly.”

The move may seem relatively insignificant. Archbishop Romero is largely recognized as a martyr for the faith and for the poor in El Salvador. He is often connected, however, to liberation theology, a way of thinking about the poor that became popular during the political unrest in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Church leaders once feared the theology might border on Marxism. It emphasizes a charity to the poor through structural and political changes that some leaders thought would be too revolutionary and potentially spur violence.

Since that time, liberation theology has become more accepted as a way to think about the poor in Catholic teaching as the end of the Cold War led to a diminished fear of Marxism. This has allowed Pope Francis to bring  certain Latin American leaders back into the spotlight. 

It has also allowed him to more openly criticize capitalism. Pope Francis’s push for Archbishop Romero’s sainthood is relevant because of its historical implications, but also because of its impact on the narrative forming around Pope Francis.

Francis has been depicted as the liberal Pope, often breaking with tradition. Some have even labeled him anti-capitalist. He has openly criticized capitalism and some of its tendencies, as did Archbishop Romero. 

Romero, who was assassinated in 1980, said in one of his homilies that it is “absurd to say the church has become Marxist.” But he also mentions that “there is ‘atheism’ that is closer at hand and more dangerous to our church. It is the atheism of capitalism, in which material possessions are set up as idols and take God’s place…Which is more serious: to deny God out of a false idea of human liberation, or to deny him out of selfishness raised to the level of idolatry?”

With the imminent threat of Marxism gone, is Pope Francis’s rush to beatify Romero a sign of his and the church’s growing distaste for capitalism? How should Americans respond to this change in tone? And do capitalism and Catholicism ultimately conflict?


The cries of anti-capitalism surrounding Pope Francis first began to emerge last year following several criticisms he made regarding consumerism and free markets.

In an address to new ambassadors to the Holy See in May 2013, Francis says, “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal.”

Six months later, Francis gave an apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” (Evangelii Gaudium) which outlined his concerns with capitalism. In it, he covers several topics, but the section that grabbed the most headlines contained his remarks on the current economic environment.

Pope Francis says, “Some 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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

Proponents of free market economics have responded emphatically to Francis’s remarks. After “The Joy of the Gospel,” Rush Limbaugh said in his radio show, “What is this? Somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him. This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope.”

Pope Francis’s words are clearly an indictment of the prevailing economic system. Bill Purcell, Associate Director for Catholic Social Tradition and Co-Director of the Catholic Social Tradition Minor at Notre Dame, however, says that they represent a continuation of the ideas of Pope John Paul II and of Pope Benedict XVI, rather than a radical departure.

“If you take John Paul II, Benedict and Francis, there’s a consistency of Catholic social doctrine that’s there, so even if you look at Benedict’s encyclicals and what Pope Francis is saying, he’s actually saying the same things,” Purcell says. “Sometimes, he says them in different ways, but there’s a continuum between.”

Purcell believes the reaction to Francis has largely been due to the way he delivers his message and his style.

“Francis doesn’t mince words when he says them,” Purcell says. “He goes right at it overall. He’s saying the same thing, but he’s doing it in short sentences. It’s kind of in your face.”

Through his language, Francis is placing a new  critical emphasis on capitalism. He does not directly condemn the system as a whole, but rather calls out several of its features. But to what extent are capitalism and the Church actually opposed?

“I think in Catholic thought about economics, the real criterion has to do with the kind of purpose and destination of material goods,” Dr. Daniel Philpott, professor of Political Science and Peace Studies and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, says. “It doesn’t endorse any ideology or system of economics first and foremost. Some of the fundamental features of capitalism like property and profits and so forth are good, but conditionally so.”

Philpott says that capitalism on a fundamental level is not evil. The pillars of capitalism like private ownership and the free market are not in themselves problematic, he says. It is when those pillars are taken as absolutes that problems can arise.

“There is nothing immoral about profits in Catholic social thought,” Philpott says. “Profits aren’t necessarily or inherently motivated by greed. But [a type of greed can take over], as well as a desire just to accumulate for accumulating’s sake or out of envy or a desire for status. Then, they become problematic.”

Greed has long been a theme in the way the free market system is portrayed. From depictions of Wall Street to Hollywood, America is often described as a land of excess. Less universally shown is how American society treats its poor.

In its outline of Catholic Social Teaching, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says that a basic moral test of society is how the most vulnerable members are faring. This notion falls under the preferential option for the poor, one of the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching, which says that the poor must receive special consideration when it comes to defending the rights of individuals.

Pope Francis’s criticism of the current economic system seems to stem from the inequalities between the rich and the poor. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, 50 percent of all household income in the U.S. was earned by the richest 20 percent of the population, and the richest quintile’s share of the income is growing.

The preferential option for the poor is the church’s biggest challenge to capitalism. A completely free market has no built in provisions for the poor and vulnerable.

“Capitalism is not enough to guarantee that everyone benefits in a society because not everybody is born into the world with equal ability to negotiate,” Carolyn Woo, Ph.D, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services says. Woo formerly served as the dean of the Mendoza College of Business before taking on her role at CRS in 2012.

“If we just think with economic prosperity and economic growth, that everybody will be better off, all the evidence says that’s not true,” Woo says. “If you look into the system, you will see that people don’t have any bargaining chips. So, that is where the problem lies with the completely free market. The issues are a lot more complicated than if you work hard, you will succeed, and if you don’t succeed, then you must not have worked hard.”

Woo clarifies that business and capitalism are two different entities. She says business can occur in any political or economic system and has tremendous potential for good or for exploitation, as does any profession.

“I think both greed and compassion are part of human nature,” she says. “… But we know that context is very important. We know that context creates certain values and certain norms that may make bad things become OK. If one operates in that environment where everybody does it, then one is more likely to do it. So, here is the interaction of both the personal decision and to not negate the context of the culture that a person operates in.”

In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis says, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

In addition to the notion of greed and inequality that can sometimes follow the American economy, Purcell says the Church would also find issue with notions of private property and individualism taken too far.

“As much as anything else, Catholic Social Teaching conflicts with individualism,” he says. “The Bill of Rights gives individual rights, and Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic social doctrine talk about communal rights. Human dignity is recognized in a social context.”

“Libertarianism, for example, is for a free market economy — you do what you want and let the market decide,” Purcell says. “Catholic Social Teaching says that’s a problem. What happens to those who are excluded, the option for the poor? Where’s their voice?”

Thomas Aquinas in On Law, Morality and Politics and Summa Theologica addresses and supports private property. He says the eighth commandment — “Thou shalt not steal” — confirms the notion of private property. He adds that private property can promote good stewardship and benefit the common good.

“Thomas Aquinas says private property is justifiable, but it doesn’t have an absolute property to it,” Philpott says. “Some proponents of capitalism see property as the absolute end …There is a good stable ownership that comes from property, but it’s not an absolute. The government can tax it for example. Thomas Aquinas even says if you’re starving and someone else is hoarding goods, then those are not really his goods anymore. Those are yours. It would not be stealing to take them.”

American capitalism is not a complete free market system. For better or worse, there are regulations and provisions within the system. Cultural elements of greed, complete individualism and notions of private property are patterns or tendencies of capitalism more than they are proven consequences of the system.

“It’s clear that the Pope is a voice for the poor,” Philpott says. “It’s clear that he is a critic of capitalism insofar as it has a tendency to forget about the poor and manifest a kind of frenzy of consumerism. It’s clear that he’s a critic of a materialism and drive for wealth that can be indifferent to the poor. What’s less clear is how that translates into a political program.”

The Pope typically stays out of politics and parties. He says in “The Joy of the Gospel” that it is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality. Yet, given his criticisms of the prevailing economy, Catholic Americans may wonder how he thinks these issues should be solved. For example, some feel that Pope Francis’s mention of trickle-down economics is open to interpretation.

“I think what the Pope is talking about is rich individuals having more money, but corporate responsibility is much different from individual responsibility,” senior Mark Gianfalla, President of the College Republicans, says. “If you look at a pro-markets, capitalist system, the corporations are the ones in power to create the jobs.”

“Those systems are really where the trickle-down does happen in the private sector. Corporate trickle-down is much different than tax cuts for the wealthy. I think it’s corporate trickle-down most people refer to in a capitalist system, which he’s really not addressing.”

Traditionally, the Republican view of poverty calls for a focus on civil society, while the Democratic Party emphasizes welfare systems. Neither is vindicated by “The Joy of the Gospel,” nor by the preferential option for the poor. Should Americans take Francis’s advice to focus systemic efforts on the poor, the approaches may still be divided.

“It’s just different modes of thinking about the same economic system,” senior Tyler Bowen, President of the College Democrats, says. “It’s not like Republicans don’t also recognize the struggles that lower class people go through or the struggles of meeting the basic necessities of living. It’s just they conceive of what they see as the best way to go about it, which the Democratic Party for the most part disagrees with.”

Woo believes that the divided nature of American politics can also affect the notion of the common good and of individualism.

“There is a huge degree of polarization that keeps us from reaching solutions… I don’t think that any of our problems are beyond our intellect, but I think that politically, we are so divided that we do not have the will to solve these problems,” Woo says. “I think in many ways, the idea of the common good has been lost … In the notion of my good versus your good, a zero-sum game of what I give up versus what you get, we lose a sense of our common good right now and our common good into the future.”

Woo does believe that justice for the poor can be reached within the current economic system, however.

“I think capitalism and ethics not only can coexist, they must coexist,” she says. “Capitalism is really sort of a system that recognizes private property, recognizes voluntary transaction. None of that requires us to exercise every bargaining power we have to diminish the other party. It’s the recognition that there’s no need to drive people to the lowest level because you can.”

She says that community, rather than individualism, is the key to a capitalism that provides justice for the poor.

“Community means we recognize that we are dependent on each other and that we flourish together, to recognize that when everybody is better off, that is the way we flourish in the long run. Capitalism allows for that, but it requires an ethical mindset,” she says.

Ultimately, Woo says positive corporate cultures and economic justice come from ethical leaders, which is why she found the work she did at the Mendoza College of Business to be so important. Notre Dame views building ethical leaders as one of its primary responsibilities. The university mission statement says, “Residential life endeavors to develop that sense of community and of responsibility that prepares students for subsequent leadership in building a society that is at once more human and more divine.”

“I think Notre Dame has a tradition of social justice that’s something we can really be proud of,” Purcell says. “… Notre Dame encourages its students to integrate that concern for social justice with theology. It’s part and parcel of who we are.”

But the university is not immune to some of the tendencies of American culture.

“As a Catholic institution, I believe it’s the university’s job to perform service and to serve the Church in a humble sense, which I believe they do,” Gianfalla says. “But at the same time, if you ask the average Notre Dame student and me personally, I think they’re very interested in the finances of the university. They’re more interested in the wealthy donor than the poor student in need in some cases. I think the average student’s impression of the university is that it’s in bed with its donors. If not true specifically, I think it’s at least true in perception. I think that’s something the university could work on.”

Both Bowen and Gianfalla agreed that education was the key to future economic and ethical success. Bowen adds that he doesn’t think capitalism and Catholicism are ideologically at odds, but that aspects of capitalist societies seem to be out of line with the church.

“I don’t think they’re at odds in that you can believe in capitalism and be Catholic,” Bowen says. “But capitalism as we have it is not a system where people are born equal.  You could say it rewards one class of people and the people that are benefitting are not willing to share those resources. [Pope Francis] would probably see it as sort of a selfish system that doesn’t do the job of taking care of the people in the society. I think I would agree with those criticisms.”

It’s unclear what long-term effect, if any, Pope Francis’s criticisms will have on policy. The beatification of Romero and his statements on capitalism have, however, opened up a dialogue both at Notre Dame and around the world.

Capitalism itself may not contradict Catholic Social Teaching, but Francis says elements of many capitalist societies do.

He sends a clear reminder that the economy exists for the people, not the people for the economy.


This story appeared in the October 9, 2014 issue of Scholastic.