Surprise! It’s Catholic social teaching!

Having now read the umpteenth rundown of Pope Francis' opposition to "unfettered capitalism"—with John Allen going a touch overboard by calling Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis' "I Have a Dream" speech—I am pleased to report that the Catholic church's "best kept secret"—it's powerful, well-developed, and incisive social teaching—is now officially out of the bag. Except that it never really was in the bag in the first place!

Francis' critiques of global capitalism in his apostolic exhortation are frankly straight out of the papal social teaching of the last 50 years, which has always denounced naked free market capitalism (along with its evil twin, totalitarian communism). Catholic social teaching has at least since Pope John XXIII always insisted that every human being should enjoy broad access to the common good—from food, clothing, and shelter to education and health care, even adequate time for rest and vacation. While some have argued that Pope John Paul II was more favorable to Western capitalism (given his experience in Poland), never in his writing did he argue that free markets should trump the "full integral human development" that is the goal of the economy according to Catholic social teaching.

If there's anything new about Francis' take on Catholic social teaching, it is simply his clarity, both in his everyday choices and in his writing. His calling out of "trickle down" economics is a case in point: "This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed." You will find no free market worship in this pope. The fact that he comes from Latin America, a region that has been particularly damaged by its own versions of "trickle down," adds further credibility to his argument.

Americans shouldn't miss this point: Francis' take on the economy is a direct attack on American-style capitalism and our cultural confidence in the power of markets to bring about justice and poverty relief. His diagnosis is spot on, as we can well see with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor (rivaling many so-called "developing countries"), the depression of wages, and increasing levels of poverty and hunger. The real question is whether Americans, and American Catholics in particular, will take up Francis' call to a more just society.

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.