Acton Commentary

Does the Pope Blast Capitalism?


“Pope's New Book Criticizes Capitalism” said the Associated Press. It was speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, the hot selling book that Pope Benedict XVI began writing before he was elected Pope. Now it is big news and selling in the millions.

The Boston Globe, MSNBC, Fox News, Miami Herald, and a hundred other outlets repeated the claim that the book knocks capitalism. He reportedly says that capitalism inflicts a kind of cruelty on people.

Now, in reading these stories, my first reaction was: What is meant here by capitalism? If by capitalism we mean a system where the elites own the wealth and the poor exist in a servile condition, yes, that sounds cruel. But if we mean the free economy, it is another matter entirely. The free economy (and you can call it capitalism if you want) has been the number one source of material liberation for the poor the world over.

We need only look at the last ten years in China, Eastern Europe, and Asia to see how the free economy has boosted life spans, reduced infant mortality, increased overall health, and fed millions in ways that would be unimaginable under controlled economies. The free economy is a life support system for the whole world. Could Benedict XVI really be departing from the teachings of John Paul II that economic freedom is but a part of a larger system of freedom and rights that is embraced by the Church?

What a surprise, then, awaited me when I actually received the book. It is not a book about politics, economics, or anything that the press is usually interested in. It is a sophisticated theological and spiritual reflection. Its topic is Jesus. Incredibly, it never uses the word “capitalism” at all.

At the outset of the book, its author makes something very clear that seems difficult to grasp in the secular mind. It is a fact hinted at in the way in which the author is identified in both the English and Italian editions: at the top of the book jacket in smaller print he is identified simply as “Joseph Ratzinger.” Below this, in much larger letters is a name of great recognition: Pope Benedict XVI. After outlining the scope of his examination, which emerges “after a long interior path,” a distinction is made in the conclusion of the introduction. He writes:

“I need to be sure to expressly say that this book is not in any way a magisterial act, but is a unique expression of my personal research of ”the face of the Lord (cf. Psalm 27:8). Therefore anyone is free to contradict me, I only ask my readers that expectation of sympathy without which there is no comprehension.“

A secular reader will ask, “of course I am free to disagree,” while for the Catholic faithful, an official act of the Church's teaching authority is something to be taken with loyal submission of will and intellect. Knowing this, Ratzinger wishes to make clear that this book does not involve magisterial authority.

We come next to the section of book which has caused widespread comment in some media sources. As Nicole Winfield, in her AP review put it, “Pope Benedict XVI offers a personal meditation on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in his first book as pontiff, criticizing the 'cruelty' of capitalism's exploitation of the poor but also decrying the absence of God in Marxism.”

What does the book actually say? While Ratzinger does explicitly criticize Karl Marx's notion of alienation, the word “capitalism” never appears in the text. What does appear is a challenging moral meditation on human solidarity and the centrality of God in human life, including aid to poor people. All this occurs in the course of Ratzinger's discussion of the Good Samaritan. Here he says, in my translation from the Italian:

“The timeliness of the parable is obvious. If we apply it to the dimensions of globalized society, we see how the population of Africa, which finds itself robbed and plundered, is of personal concern to us. So we see how close they are to us; we see also that our lifestyle, the history in which we are also involved, has deprived them and continues to deprive them. In this, above all, is comprised the fact that we have wounded them spiritually. Instead of giving them God, the God close to us in Christ, and thus welcoming from their traditions all that is precious and grand and bringing it to fulfillment, we have brought them the cynicism of a world without God in which only power and profit matter. We have destroyed moral criteria so that corruption and the will to power, deprived of scruples, becomes something obvious. And this pertains not only to Africa.

“Yes, we have to give material help and we have to examine our way of life. But we always give too little if all we give is the material. And do we not also find within ourselves a plundered and martyred man? The victims of drugs, or human trafficking, of sexual tourism, people interiorly destroyed, who are empty even in the abundance of material goods...We have to learn anew from the inside out the risk of abundance (bounty)...”

There is no mention here of economics, politics or specific programs of redistribution, much less any ringing criticism of the free economy. If Ratzinger means to say by this passage that the poor in Africa are made poor by our wealth, that it an empirical claim which can either be verified or falsified by the facts - and none of this would touch on his authority as pope, or Catholic social teaching as such.

But I do not think that is his point, even if it is on the agenda of journalists and editorial writers. Ratzinger's writings are startlingly clear and unambiguous. This is explicitly a spiritual reflection on our own interior disposition toward those who are “neighbors” to us and for whom we have some moral responsibility - not an economic screed.

He is calling on us to care for the poor in every possible way: materially and spiritually. The science of economics informs us that the free economy is the best possible foundations for growing wealth. But after that, more is required of every system of economic organization. Here is the where the life of Christ informs us as individuals and as societies. The human family needs to listen to what the Pope has to say, unfiltered by the highly politicized and often deeply inaccurate reports of journalists looking for headlines.