In one of his most extensive and defining works as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis published a Papal Encyclical titled “Fratelli tutti”, or “All brothers”. Outlining a myriad of ills facing our world, the piece hones in on one theme: that the world, while espousing principles of “diversity”, “globalization”, and “openness”, is quickly sinking away from a shared image moored in the common good of all mankind.
Many American Catholics, as well as those Catholics who are firm proponents of free markets and economic globalization, have come out and condemned the enclycical’s condemnations of modern capitalism. Indeed, Pope Francis did not mince his words: “we need to think of ourselves more and more as a single family dwelling in a common home. Such care does not interest those economic powers that demand quick profits.”
What many free marketeers have gotten wrong, however, is that the Pope is not rebuking markets, private property rights, and economic opportunity. He is critiquing our current system of economic organization and a belief in markets as not only good, but the ultimate authority of that which is “good”.
He is arguing, as Pope John Paul II put forth, that “If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which 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 certainly in the affirmative…”
Pope J.P.II does say that the “capitalism” he disagrees with that is that which “is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious…”
Pope Francis, like his predecessors, is not calling for the destruction of capitalism and the introduction of socialism. He is calling for all of us, in the American tradition, to acknowledge that we’ve gone damn far — but we still have far more to do yet.
Pointing to our loss of a shared vision following the end of the Cold War, Francis raises a question: “Amid the fray of conflicting interests, where victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents, how is it possible to raise our sights to recognize our neighbours or to help those who have fallen along the way?”
We can and must recognize those that capitalism has neglected: those who are still poor, those who still struggle with burgeoning debt, all of us constrained by the fundamental disconnection and immorality facilitated by rapid human atomization.
Our social ills, despite calls from my libertarian friends, cannot be solved if we treat culture as completely divorced from economic principles. In a world which values the economic as primary, no holistic solution can exclude economic solutions.
Our recognition of capitalism’s shortcomings do not then justify the terrible atrocities facilitated by communism and socialism. Pope John Paul II famously characterized socialism’s ills as anthropological in nature: “Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.”
And this goes without mentioning the Vatican’s historic opposition to the Soviet empire and its monstrous machinations.
Do not buy into the trap of the Cold War: the idea that economic conflicts occur along a bipolar spectrum ranging from free markets to communism. If Americans, and Catholics, are serious about salvaging the West in the face of the rise of radical leftism, then we must be willing to do all that it takes to embody that which is good and reject that which has failed us.
The Pope is not calling for communism, he is calling us to higher things. He is calling us to recognize the wonderful triumphs of markets — billions lifted from poverty, abundant economic opportunity — while acknowledging its shortcomings.
We must celebrate, lift up, and encourage entrepreneurship, good business leadership, socioeconomic mobility, and private charity. Surely we can agree on all of these things. But we also must then reject a rampant “rugged individualism” — that which was envisaged by Ayn Rand — which places pure self interest above the common good.
Francis makes clear that “the Good Samaritan showed that ‘the existence of each and every individual is deeply tied to that of others: life is not simply time that passes; life is a time for interactions.’” Our worth, our value, and our fundamental “self” cannot be defined by surrender to our base instincts. It must be revealed by our will, and our will must be aligned with that which is good: charity, solidarity, fraternity.
But we will not find these answers, at least here in the United States, by overreliance on the government. A bloated bureaucracy operating from a swamp divorced from the realities of the great American middle and working class will never understand our struggles and needs.
That is precisely why Francis then calls for further community-building in this encyclical. This can be formed from the family on up, and our collective commitment to building strong families, strong communities, a strong polis, a strong nation, and a strong world. This is not to say, however, that the federal government should not work towards the common good. It is to say, rather, that the feds will not be our saviors — just a piece of the puzzle.
America’s greatness has never been defined by misplaced nostalgia nor pompous declarations of superiority. The truly great moments in our history have been defined by our unwillingness to remain content with the status quo. It is in this century that we are once again called to a greater purpose.
Americans must move beyond a belief in entirely economic solutions. Communism tells us that all reality is the sum of social interactions, and that the remedy to our ills is wholly economic in nature. Let us not fall into that trap. Let us transcend it.
For, as President Ronald Reagan put it, “Status quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’”