By Al Lewis
Pope Francis has been swiftly branded anti-capitalist, Marxist and even Communist, just for pointing out that people should not worship money, corruption should not be tolerated, and that our global economic system should create more jobs for people who don’t have them.
The talk radio blowhard was hardly alone.
• “Is he el papa del comunismo?” reads a piece on Gawker.com, headlined, “Top ‘Screw Capitalism’ Lines” in Pope Francis’ New Message.” (Never mind that the pope didn’t say “screw capitalism,” or anything resembling it.)
• “The Pope’s Self-Defeating Anti-Capitalistic Rant,” reads an unreasonable headline on Reason.com. “He shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds the church.”
• “A salvo against global capitalism,” reads an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
• “The pope has officially declared a new enemy,” claims a piece on The Atlantic magazine’s website.
So now even the pope is an enemy combatant?
Perhaps the most audacious thing the pope suggested in his treatise was that “trickle-down economics” wasn’t trickling down to everyone. But you hardly need papal authority to point out that unemployment rates are excessively high and that the gap between rich and poor is historically very wide.
You also don’t need a direct line to God to observe that too-big-to-fail banks, and many large corporations, hold disproportionate sway over the world’s governments and can craft rules and tap treasuries to suit themselves.
Nor does one need a pointy hat to denounce “widespread corruption” when key facets of the so-called “free-market” have been illegally manipulated, from energy prices to LIBOR, the global interest rates that affect the price of almost everything.
In his exhortation, the pope is merely pointing out that “free markets” should not be so free as to corrupt themselves and all humanity.
Nowhere in the pope’s message does he say he wants to replace capitalism with something else. He didn’t even use the word “capitalism” once in his exhortation. But some people can’t handle a single stitch of criticism when it comes to that abstraction in their heads they call capitalism.
I became a business writer because I love capitalism, just as sports writers love sports and theater critics love the performing arts. None of these subjects, however, are without their controversies.
When a sports writer bashes a coach or a team, no one calls the writer “anti-sports.” When a theater critic pans a production, no one accuses the critic of hating the arts. I have found, though, that whenever I say anything critical about businesses or CEOs, or even dare to raise questions about equity, justice or rules of law, I get missives from readers calling me “commie.”
I sometimes ask these people why don’t complain about professional sports having way too many rules and pesky referees.
Notice that when Pope Francis lashes out against his own church for things like, oh, harboring pedophiles, nobody calls him “anti-Catholic.” He’s even taken shots at his own Vatican bank, demanding more transparency from a financial institution suspected of pervasive corruption itself. The church has at least as many problems as capitalism. This doesn’t mean the pope wants to replace it with something else. He just wants it to work righteously. Promoting righteousness is, after all, his job.
The Catholic Church has done as much to discredit communism as any institution — particularly during the Cold War era. The church, meanwhile, is a tax-free repository of untold wealth from the enterprises of the ages. Its holdings are more undisclosed than any off-balance-sheet partnership at Enron. Its business —selling forgiveness, redemption and salvation from God — has been one of the most lucrative franchises in history. So anyone who says the pope wants to replace capitalism with say, Marxism, is a disingenuous sensationalist or paranoid crackpot.
It is beside the point for the pope’s detractors to argue that capitalism has brought more people out of poverty than any other system. Or that capitalism feeds the church. We already know that.
But if we learned anything from 2008 financial crisis, it’s that capitalists themselves are the biggest threat to capitalism. Without proper checks and balances, the world’s entire money eco-system can collapse — leaving the disappointed masses to embrace socialism, or worse, anarchism.
“The poor … are accused of violence,” the pope writes, “yet without equal opportunities … aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode.”
The pope, here, is not calling for revolution. He is trying to prevent violent upheavals by getting more idle youth off the streets and into jobs. Commerce, you see, doesn’t flow so well when people are rioting in the streets.
“To call the Holy Father a proponent of ‘pure marxism’ is both mean-spirited and naïve,” reads a statement from a group called the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “Francis’s critique of unrestrained capitalism is in line with the Church’s social teaching. His particular criticism of ‘trickle down economics’ strengthens what Church authorities have said for decades: any economic system which deprives the poor of their dignity has no place within a just society.”
The Bible says it is easier to squeeze a rich man through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel to go to heaven — or something like that.
But I think that if people want to support capitalism they should lay off the pope and find salvation in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”