Pope Francis Declares Consumers and Capitalists Need to Help the Poor

In a new declaration, the pope warns that the ‘culture of prosperity deadens us,’ taking aim at free market capitalists and consumers alike.

Franco Origlia/Getty,Franco Origlia

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

I guess Pope Francis doesn’t watch Bloomberg TV.

This quote is one of the many zingers Pope Francis aims at global capitalism in his just-issued Apostolic Exhortation (here’s the PDF version)

The economic sections were a small component—items 54-60 of a 106-item, 86-page document. But they were noteworthy for injecting the Vatican into the raging global debate about inequality. And they are likely to delight many followers and alarm many others who generally look to the Vatican for guidance on spiritual and policy matters. Earlier this month, Sarah Palin kicked up a storm when she expressed concern about some of Pope Francis’s views on a range of issues—from poverty to the treatment of gays. “He’s had some statements that to me sound kind of liberal, has taken me aback, has kind of surprised me,” she told CNN. I wonder what she’s thinking now that Francis has unleashed a broadside at supply-siders, defenders of the prerogatives of finance, and at consumers in general.

Francis, of course, hails from Latin America, the wellspring of the radical, feared ‘Liberation Theology’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s. While no leveler, Francis is allergic to ostentation. He doesn’t like the imperial trappings of the office. He has no entourage, and moved into rooms at the Casa Santa Maria, the Vatican hotel, instead of occupying the large papal penthouse at the Apostolic Palace. Not for him the Red Prada slippers of his predecessor. His church has cracked down on showy displays of wealth. This fall, he suspended of the Bishop of Limburg, who spent millions of Euros renovating his residence.

Francis has been relentless in talking about the church’s mission and need to serve the poor. Poverty and inequality used to be accepted as an order imposed by God. Today, Francis forthrightly pinned the blame on humans. The global economy has grown in every year since 1944 except one—2009. Broadly speaking, living standards are rising around the world, and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of abject poverty. Yet there are glaring, often violent deficiencies in the system.

Popes have never been big fans of Darwinism. This Pope takes direct aim at economic Darwinism. “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” he wrote. Francis has little use for those who argue that cutting taxes for the rich helps the poor. “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he said in a mini-rant that wouldn’t be out-of-place on MSNBC. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Time and again, he goes after the malign influence of the theology of free-market, financial, consumer-based capitalism. As for money, “we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies.” There are too many worshippers of Mammon among us. “The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex. 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

That’s old school. But Francis also engages in the sort of critique of modern finance that has emerged in the slew of post-crisis books: the financial industry captures government, redirects policies and resources to benefit itself at the expense of everybody else—with toxic results. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few,” he writes. “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.” He complains about excessive debt and “self-serving tax evasion” among the wealthy. And even as they rig the system, those at the top often “content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their trouble.” He calls for reforms that make finance subservient to industry and for the redistribution of wealth. “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.”

As I read this, I imagined a fresco depicting the economic section of the document. In the central panel, Sen. Elizabeth Warren whispers into the ear of the Pope as Mitt Romney and hedge fund managers are flayed. To one side, a group of union organizers rip up a copy of the Republican Party’s 2012 platform. In one corner, a pile of Apple iPads and Google glasses are torched in a bonfire. In another, makers, personified by the small, suited figure of Paul Ryan beg forgiveness from a gallery of takers, which include bedraggled peasants with the faces of Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, and Che Guevara. And Alan Greenspan, clutching a copy of Atlas Shrugged, boils in a bath of molten gold.

It’s not just financiers who come in for censure. Consumers take it on the chin, too. Gadgets, technology, and stuff, contrary to what you read in advertisements, don’t make us happier or better people. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

It’s a message we should all keep in mind—Catholic or not—as we flood the malls in search of Black Friday deals.