WASHINGTON – Interestingly enough, Pope Francis is coming to America after visiting Cuba, (a true bastion of progress and human rights?). While here, we can expect that he will exhort American evil capitalists to finally see the light, recognize their unprincipled lives as sinful, and decide to give more, lots more, to the poor. Yes, the very poor they have been exploiting all along.
Poor, just like Saint Francis
I understand that this is over simplification. But overall this is the message that this Pope has been delivering. He adopted the name of Saint Francesco (Francis) of Assisi (the Saint of the poor) as a reminder to the entire world that the Catholic Church, just like the original Francis, is about extreme frugality and service to the poor.
Saint Francis of Assisi, (1181-1226), was born in Umbria (Central Italy) as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone; but became known as “Francesco”, a nickname given to him by his family. He was the son of a wealthy merchant. But he gave up his comfortable life in his own personal pursuit of a Christian spiritual path.
Much later he created the monastic order of the Franciscan Friars. Francesco became known as “Il Poverello”, “The Little Poor Man”. This was not meant as an insult or mockery. Living just like the poor, and this included extreme frugality, was in fact a badge of honor. The Franciscan Friars living with almost nothing were seen as an example of truly good Christian conduct. This Order intended to bring the people back to the original Christian spiritual message.
The message was that this earthly life is mostly about preparing oneself to meet God in the true eternal life that will begin after death. From this perspective, caring for wealth and possessions is at best a distraction, at its worst, it is a sin.
Well, given all this, frankly it is quite difficult to transfer the example of the extraordinary life of Saint Francis (who lived almost a thousand years ago) and his many followers into modernity. The notion that you can apply the Franciscan example to our times, just as if we were living in the pre-industrial Middle Ages, is silly.
More broadly, the entire Catholic social and economic doctrine based on suspicion for the rich and a constant reminder to help the poor with donations is flawed, and outdated. Taken literally, it becomes an enemy of progress.
Indeed, this anti-capitalist bias stems from silly ideas that during the 1970s in Italy, (home of the Catholic Church and of the largest Communist Party in the western world), were labelled “Cattocomunismo”. The term indicated that Catholics (“Catto”) and Communists (“Comunismo”), although this sounds most improbable, have one fundamental thing in common: a strong anti-capitalist prejudice.
The Communists, of course, believed that capitalism was just one (inferior) phase of a necessary historic evolution. They believed that it had to be replaced by socialism, a much better form of economic and social institutions.
The Catholics, deep down, always believed that capitalism is mostly about bad stuff: profits, greed and exploitation. For a good Catholic, all in all, those who make money are suspect. If they make lots of money, they are even more suspect. We learn from the Gospel that Christ loved the meek and the poor, not the rich.
And this leads us to Pope Francis and his clever populist message replete with exhortations to help the poor, while chastising those who are engrossed in money-making activities.
This may be a good political message for a Catholic Church caught in the downward spiral of its historic decline. But it is a horrible, in fact destructive, message for the world.
The fact is that where there is no capitalism, or where capitalism is not allowed to advance, usually there is massive poverty.
Capitalism is not perfect
Capitalism is by no means perfect. And yes, within capitalism we have plenty of examples of greed, speculation, manipulation, and fraudulent activities. But this is not about “capitalism” per se. This is about unethical people –plenty of them in many societies– who twisted the system to their advantage, usually in violation of existing laws.
Poverty is Holy
But here is the real problem. According to the Church, poverty is sad but Holy. Capitalism, as a rule, is bad and devilish. The only way in which the rich can atone is by giving more, a lot more, to the poor.
That said, this approach postulates that the world can do perfectly OK without growth, or that sustained economic growth –the only proven way to lift people out of poverty– can be achieved without capitalism. It also assumes that it would be a good thing if poverty continued permanently. Otherwise, if the poor can get rich, how do you turn the poor into well off people without poisoning their souls with capitalistic greed?
The Medieval order
The fact is that the world is better off with capitalism. Saint Francis lived and preached within a primitive and quite horrible Medieval society of rigid hierarchical stratification that he certainly never challenged. At the top there were kings, aristocrats and the Church leadership. Then there was a very small urban middle class of merchants, craftsmen and bankers. And at the bottom the multitude of eternally poor serfs, the semi-slaves who had the obligation to cultivate the land for the benefit of the nobles, the Church and the merchants. This ghastly social and economic order that condemned the poor, their children and the children of their children, to remain poor was presumed to be eternal, and in fact ordained by God.
Capitalism: personal and economic freedom, plus technology
Capitalism disrupted all this. It was the child of revolutionary ideas. The first one was that human beings could and should be “free” and change their circumstances. The second was that new discoveries in science and technology had created new and more effective ways of doing things, from soil cultivation to the production of garments. The third was that it was perfectly alright for free people to engage in profit-making new activities.
What capitalism produced
Well, fast forward to the Industrial Revolution and then to our times and we see the cumulative “ill effects” of capitalism. Indeed, this is what greed and exploitation produced. We have incredible rates of economic growth and enhanced productivity due to ever improving new technologies. And, last but not least, hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty because of the opportunities created by the combination of personal liberty, science and new technologies. Add to this mix enhanced access to education; and –yes– the powerful incentive represented by the understanding that you can make an honest profit by engaging in honest money-making activities, to the best of your abilities.
This is capitalism. Altogether a good thing. With this, we do not condone people who break laws or otherwise engage in shady activities. But capitalism as such is good.
Bad ideas recycled to attract new followers
“Cattocomunismo” and other assorted Catholic social doctrines are instead musty relics of a flawed past. It is this thinking, with its principled opposition to capitalism, (the only system that truly promotes progress), that (ironically) contributed to condemn millions of people to never-ending poverty.
I am sure that Pope Francis knows all this. But he is deliberately talking to the only constituency the Catholic Church now has: the poor in mostly poor countries. This message may resonate with them.
He knows perfectly well that the larger audiences in (once Catholic) developed countries stopped listening to this nonsense long ago. The empty churches prove this.