Whenever the Holy Father speaks out about economic issues, there is sure to be turmoil in his wake. Even though he is essentially repeating well-established positions of Catholic Social Teaching that are virtually identical to statements by his predecessors, people profess to be scandalized by his alleged radicalism and hostility to “capitalism”. He has been called a “Marxist”, a “liberation theologian”, and a “Peronist”, and has been accused of ignorance about basic economics.
We’ll see about that. In Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father denounced the “idolatry of money” in very blunt terms:
One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption…. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules… In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
For writing this, the Holy Father was widely accused of setting up a straw man — an imaginary construct of market idolatry that nobody actually believes in. But, in fact, the Holy Father’s point about the morality of the free market is actually reinforced by the actual theories of free-market advocates.
A book was recently published, entitled Markets Without Limits, by two Georgetown political science professors. A summary of the themes of the book can be found on the website of the Cato Institute, the leading economic libertarian think-tank, and on a website the professors contribute to.
The professors have chosen to express their basic point in a provocative way — “if you may do it for free, you may do it for money”. At first blush, their position appears horrifyingly amoral and dangerous. For example, they advocate against any moral disapproval of commodification, and explain how one could support the legalization of prostitution and the sale of human organs. In their view, the market per se is a morally neutral device for the trading of perceived goods, and as such there are “no in-principle moral limits on markets”.
But underneath this superficial amorality is a crucial argument that actually dovetails with what the Holy Father is saying about morality and the economy. The professors summarize it as “The Principle of Wrongful Possession: If it is inherently morally wrong for someone to possess (do, use) X, then (normally) it is morally wrong for that person to buy or sell X.” In other words, the market itself operates according to the underlying moral judgments of society. If it is decided that something like slavery or sex trafficking is immoral, then it would be immoral for the market to trade in it.
This could certainly be read as taking a position of moral relativism and positivism — morality depends solely on what society defines it, and definitions can change over time. That would clearly benefit those who have wealth and power, to the detriment of those without. But it also supports what Pope Francis (along with Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul) have said, as Cardinal Dolan pointed out last year — “the value of any economic system rests on the personal virtue of the individuals who take part in it, and on the morality of their day-to-day decisions.”
This enables us to focus on the real issue — the human element of economic decisions, how we view money and wealth, and how the economy impacts real human beings. As Catholics, we believe that there are many things that are intrinsically immoral, and thus would fall under the professors’ “Principle of Wrongful Possession”. The sale of human persons (slavery, sex trafficking, prostitution), human organs, weapons of mass destruction, dangerous drugs, pornography, to name a few, are never morally justifiable and so can never be articles of legitimate trade in a free market. Likewise, subhuman working conditions, exploitation of laborers, unjust wages, economic exclusion, materialism, and unbridled consumerism are also intrinsically evil, and cannot be the subject or result of transactions in the free market.
So, far from being an economic naif or ideologue, the Holy Father (and Catholic Social Teaching in general) is actually arguing for an essential truth that is also proposed by free market theorists — economics is not removed from morality, but is a way in which it is expressed. He is not criticizing “capitalism” or economic freedom, but calling for conversion, so that the free market can serve genuine human values, and promote authentic development and the common good.
People thus have a moral choice — serve the true God in our economic activities, or worship the golden calf of money. The correct decision has been laid out for us by a good authority (Mt. 6:19-34).