With a 224-page document and a 2000 year Church history, however, media coverage is bound to include some oversimplifications. One is the title of Emma Green’s piece in the Atlantic, “The Vatican’s Journey From Anti-Communism to Anti-Capitalism.” While the article includes a lot of good information, it does oversimplify historical Church teaching on the economy. Green writes:
Throughout 224 pages on the future of the Church, he condemns income inequality, “the culture of prosperity,” and “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”
Taken in the context of the last half-century of Roman Catholicism, this is a radical move. Fifty years ago, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, Church leaders quietly declared a very different economic enemy: communism. But Pope Francis’s communitarian, populist message shows just how far the Church has shifted in five decades—and how thoroughly capitalism has displaced communism as a monolithic political philosophy.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, “presents Catholic doctrine within the context of the Church’s history and tradition.” According to the Catechism,
2425 The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for “there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market. Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.
The Church has a long history of rejecting both communism and capitalism in their pure forms. The Catechism elaborates on private property:
2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.
2404 “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.” The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.
2405 Goods of production – material or immaterial – such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.
2406 Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.
The following passages concerning economic activity and profit are also quite relevant:
2423 …Any system in which social relationships are determined entirely by economic factors is contrary to the nature of the human person and his acts.
2424 A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. It is one of the causes of the many conflicts which disturb the social order.
2425 A system that “subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production” is contrary to human dignity. Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism. “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
These passages from the Catechism are based on a long history of Catholic teaching on economic justice, including Encyclicals from the Popes. Quadragesimo Anno, for example, written by Pope Pius XI in 1931, responded to economic conditions and inequality following the Great Depression. More recently, Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate stated that “Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.”
I am very grateful for Pope Francis’ exhortation. I do not think it represents a radical shift in Church teaching, but rather a renewed and louder cry for the teaching to be taken seriously. His cries that “The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies.” I hope the world will listen.