Pope Francis is famous for his strident denunciations of a “throwaway culture” that ruthlessly discards human beings not considered useful in an economy that “kills.” His criticism is true insofar as our pragmatic age exalts what David Brooks calls “résumé virtues” over “eulogy virtues.” Technocracy and utilitarianism have made us cold and calculating, less respectful towards nature and neighbor. And while the profit motive may be one reason why once-revered human qualities are now neglected or mocked, I often wonder if the pope has accurately identified the real cause of the problem.
My concerns were only heightened by the secret videos of Planned Parenthood officials blithely discussing buying and selling the body parts of aborted babies. Part of me is nervously awaiting the pope to denounce capitalism for this social evil, as well. In fact, there are U.S. federal laws prohibiting profit-making in this type of commerce, and Planned Parenthood itself denies making any money from it. (Even abortionists recognize the evil of profits!) But another part of me questions whether it’s the quest for profits that drives the abortion industry to not only perform but brazenly justify its barbaric practices.
Let me restate the problem this way: Assuming Planned Parenthood is telling the truth that it makes no profit in the buying and selling of fetal body parts, would that make the “crushing” and “crunching” of babies acceptable? Would it be OK to abort babies out of “humanitarian” or “compassionate” rather than “self-interested” motives? Are government-subsidized abortions somehow less gruesome than private-sector ones?
The answers are obvious to anyone with the least bit of moral sense. Planned Parenthood has apologized only for the tone rather than the actual acts revealed in the videos. The act of killing innocent human beings is the real crime. But somehow the critics of capitalism could blame even this on “laissez-faire economics.”
This is an old story. Intellectuals have written tomes on and politicians have careers out of bashing the commercial society. What began in Industrial-era Britain, spread to America and is now just about everywhere, as the very name “globalization” attests, lifting billions of people out of poverty and raising living standards in ways that would have been unbelievable 50 years ago. But it still doesn’t matter. I’ve even had to defend capitalism against the charge of creating “gender theory” and promoting same-sex marriage. It is the one-size-fits-all bogeyman of the modern age.
There’s only so much self-hatred we can engage in, however, before we come to our economic senses. If we want people to have jobs and prosper, we must allow markets to function and people to make money in necessarily unequal ways. Not at all costs and not as if making money is the only thing that matters. Granting legitimacy to money-making would also mean having to look elsewhere for the causes of our moral and spiritual maladies.
As Pope St. John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus no. 39, most of our social problems are ethical and cultural (he could have also said political in the broad sense), rather than strictly economic. I’ve always liked the humorist P.J. O’Rourke’s take on how our anything-goes culture leaves us unable to make the most basic moral distinctions:
The second item in the liberal creed, after self-righteousness, is unaccountability. Liberals have invented whole college majors — psychology, sociology, women's studies — to prove that nothing is anybody's fault. No one is fond of taking responsibility for his actions, but consider how much you'd have to hate free will to come up with a political platform that advocates killing unborn babies but not convicted murderers. A callous pragmatist might favor abortion and capital punishment. A devout Christian would sanction neither. But it takes years of therapy to arrive at the liberal view.
Liberals seem to be in favor of virtually every kind of liberty except the economic kind because market discipline actually holds producers and consumers responsible for their actions, sometimes ruthlessly so, billions of times a day throughout the world, in ways that always escape bureaucrats and central planners.
I’m willing to wager that not even Pope Francis will be able to continue bashing capitalism as he has. Since the publication of the deeply anti-market encyclical Laudato Si and his subsequent trip to Latin America, where he was surrounded by like-minded politicians and activists, his popularity in the United States has started to decline. During the interview on his return from Latin American, Pope Francis admitted that he is “allergic” to economics, that he has mistakenly neglected the woes of the middle class, and that he needed to study the criticisms made of his economics statements ahead of his trip to the U.S. These are all very welcome and encouraging signs of humility from the Holy Father. Better late than never!
So, once the attacks against the American way of life, a.k.a. business, are made more moderate and reasonable, we can start to diagnose what truly ails us. Yes, there is a general depreciation of “unproductive” human life in the West, which is why we may have to start “obsessing” over abortion and euthanasia in order to emphasize “being” over “having” and “doing.” What law and public policy have largely prescribed and condoned in these areas must eventually be reversed if we are to regain our moral sanity.
When it comes to marriage and family life, our elites should start, in the words of Charles Murray, “preaching what they practice” – even though it goes directly against the tides of mindless relativism and non-judgmentalism in our culture. And the pope should continue to use his popularity to encourage people to pray, read the Gospels, and return to the sacraments of the Church. It’s all very basic, and maybe even trite, but too often neglected.
We are not children so we know that life’s problems are not always so simple, which is why we need the anchors of work, family, and religion more now than ever. Our global economy has, in many ways, brought us closer together and made us only more aware of the problems we share without providing any obvious solutions. But as Pope Francis may be beginning to understand, that’s only more reason to rediscover the riches of the Christian heritage and not succumb to the levelling spirit of the age. And when it comes to understanding economics and America, well, our office is just across the Tiber from the Vatican and some of us will be working even in August.