A Catholic Counterpoint to Papal Capitalism-Bashing

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/21/2015 01:30:00 AM
First Raul Castro, up next the Yanquis.
Pope Francis' visit to the Americas--he's in Cuba at the moment--has occasioned much thought among the power and money elites about how to deal with him. On one hand, he appears quite popular--more so than his immediate predecessor, the stern Benedict XVI. On the other hand, his broadsides against the excesses of capitalism haven't gone down easily in the heartland of capitalism, the United States. He is, after all, Argentinian, and their country has always perceived the visible hand of Estados Unidos in their affairs.

His US itinerary is quite full:
As the U.S. presidential campaign exposes contempt for elites and angst over the future, Pope Francis arrives for his first visit with plans to denounce gross inequality and planetary neglect. The message, delivered by the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics during a six-day tour starting on September 22, will doubtless focus U.S. public discourse. Francis, 78, has stamped his humble personality on the papacy and has little time for diplomatic niceties.

Having called money “the devil’s dung” when it enslaves people, he seems likely to rattle politicians and business leaders in a country widely seen as the bastion of capitalism. “The pope says money is OK, capital is OK, but when money becomes a god, an idol, more important than man, that’s not OK - - whatever people in Wall Street think,” said Andrea Tornielli, author of “This Economy Kills,” on Francis’s economic thinking.

From a privileged pulpit -- embracing Congress, the White House, world leaders at the United Nations and about a million faithful at an outdoor mass -- the Argentine pope, the first from the Americas, is expected to condemn what he has called the “globalization of indifference,” especially toward the wave of desperate refugees from the Middle East. He is slated to give 17 speeches and homilies. The first pope to address a joint session of Congress, he will visit New York and Philadelphia, making pleas for a new world economy and urgent action on climate change.
Somewhat different from Tornielli, I am of the mind that money and capital are amoral, not good, and can be used for varied ends. Of particular concern to the pope are when money and capital are used to accelerate inequality and environmental degradation. Unless you're a WSJ op-ed section writer, I think many will find it hard to disagree with these beliefs. Indeed, Wall Street is embracing a (pro-capitalist) variation of it:
His criticisms haven’t deterred Wall Street executives from praising the pope’s leadership, humility and intellectual rigor ahead of the Argentine’s first trip to the U.S. Some said top financiers share many of his ideals, as well as his management style.

“When you look at some of the great business leaders on Wall Street, they demonstrate a lot of the same attributes the pope demonstrates,” said John Studzinski, a vice chairman at private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP who’s on the board of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Landmark Foundation. “Very clear, strong convictions; strong views on leadership; can’t really be micromanaged; are very stubborn and tenacious, but at the same time are very good listeners and tend to surround themselves with good people.”
This "the pope's a great leader" angle is all well and good, but actually, there is a more sensible riposte to some of the more extreme perceptions that the pope is capitalism-bashing. The Acton Institute whose blog I have long linked to has often featured cogent analyses on how to reconcile Catholic faith with capitalism. Unsurprisingly, it's Acton Institute President Fr. Robert Sirico who adds necessary nuance to the false dichotomy of pro- or anti-capitalism. Yes, there are varieties of capitalism, and certain forms of it--such as promotion of unfettered consumption--represent its excesses instead of its definitive characteristics:
For those who view free markets as the source of global economic imbalances, Robert Sirico has a simple message: Capitalism should not be confused with unfettered consumption...

As the Pope prepares for a whistle-stop tour through the Northeast that will have him addressing a portion of the 70 million U.S. Catholics, his recent remarks have stoked a new debate about the morality of free markets. Does capitalist excess constitute the "dung of the devil" or a "subtle dictatorship" that can't be reconciled with widespread global poverty and a struggling working class?

Sirico, however, told CNBC in an interview that free markets are wrongly conflated with the urge to splurge on goods, or idolizing material wealth. Capitalism, Sirico insisted, is far more than that.
"The economic question with regard to morality is a subset of a broader theological question: Is human freedom compatible with religious beliefs?" said Sirico, the head the Acton Institute, a right-leaning think tank that studies the nexus between religion and liberty.

Sirico expressed broad agreement with the Pope on those left behind, but at the same time said laissez-faire capitalism and entrepreneurship is still the best way to address the challenges of poverty and economic need. "If you love the poor, it's not enough to have good intentions," he said. "You can wish the poor to have bread, but if you don't build bakeries and factories, the poor don't get it."
It's a modern-day version of giving a man the financial and human capital to fish, but it still works for me.