| This piece is lengthy, but it’s long overdue. Kindly bear with me. I dislike defending someone else’s ideas. Apologetics always introduces its own bias and ends up muddling the discussion, so this effort is more of an attempt to clarify misconceptions and refute absurdities, the outcome of a visceral reaction by some capitalist theoreticians, practitioners, politicians, and dilettantes against Pope Francis’s views on capitalism. Their pushback has consisted of simplistic talking points that far from enlightening the reader it exposes incredible ignorance about the Gospel, Catholic social doctrine, Marxism, and unbelievably so, about capitalism too. A first talking point seeks to discredit Francis by asserting that, in contrast with his two predecessors, this pontiff lacks academic luster.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a converted Catholic and senior editor for the National Review magazine, relies on words from a Time magazine article to refer to Francis as, “a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher,” while indicating that John Paul II and Benedict XVI “were professors of theology.” It is true that Francis’s predecessors excelled at theology. Francis did graduate work in theology—all but finishing his doctoral dissertation—but chose instead to go back to the sheep. Anyone, of course, could have employed the same demeaning technique against John Paul II by indicating that he had been a quarry worker, a toilet bowl cleaner, a reluctant warrior who “refused to fire a weapon;” and (to stir anti-Semite feelings) a strong Jewish sympathizer. As for Benedict XVI, well, he belonged to the Hitler Youth of the Nazi Party; was part of Hitler’s German anti-aircraft corps as a child soldier; even trained in the German infantry; and has been casted as “the man chiefly responsible” for the original cover-up of pedophilia in the Catholic Church. As we all know, in a debate, Ad Hominem attacks work well on the untrained reader, as questioning the person’s background tends to undermine his actions and his views.
Another approach to discredit the pope’s views is to reject them for cultural reasons. The Speaker of the House, Catholic Paul Ryan has noted dismissively, “The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina. They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.” Arthur Brooks, co-fellow James Pethokoukis, both from the American Enterprise Institute, Richard A. Epstein senior fellow at Hoover Institution, columnist George Will, and proud capitalist entrepreneur Ed Snider, all echo Ryan’s lament. Brooks charitably snubs Francis’s views: “taken as a whole, the exhortation is good and right and beautiful. But it’s limited in its understanding of economics from the American context,” as the pope “is not an economist and not an American.”
These comments would be compelling if Francis’s views were to be different from his predecessors’. In such case the pope’s native roots may be held responsible for his ignorance about capitalism; otherwise, the comments would be irrelevant and denote ignorance of Catholic social doctrine. Further, what can be said about American liberal capitalists and Democrats who happen to agree with much of what Francis has said? Are they to be regarded as aliens from another country?
The conservative capitalist viewpoint that Francis does not know real, free-enterprise capitalism–only Argentine crony capitalism—doesn’t hold much water as it is disputed by other conservative voices. The Cato Institute, a bastion of libertarian conservatism, asserts in the National Review (Ponnuru’s magazine), that, “Crony capitalism (in the US) costs taxpayers roughly $100 billion per year, according to estimates, and consumers hundreds of billions more in higher prices….” The Wall Street Journal, Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan institute, they also agree that the US is infested by the practice of crony capitalism. Even investment wizard Hunter Lewis suggests in his book Crony Capitalism in America that conservative capitalists may not know what goes on in their own country.
What actually drives highly educated persons to attack Pope Francis’s views on capitalism in such ridiculously shallow fashion? Is the pope by any chance saying anything different from his predecessors? I agree that it would have been preferable if Francis had been more precise and spoken of a modestly regulated free-market that characterizes modern economics. Instead he refers to the “absolute autonomy of the market place,” “free market,” “deified market,” “the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market,” the “magical conception of the market,” and the “unregulated market,” as if they all describe the same model. As a result, his conservative critics complain that he is confused regarding the type of system he has in mind.
Venturing to think that Francis realizes that absolute free-markets no longer exist, we do well to take his critique as being limited to actual “free market-oriented” economic systems, that despite being regulated, are not only unable to diminish existing inequalities fast enough but in some cases create an even wider gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Just in case, to erase the misconception that Francis’s views about free-market capitalism are marred by his Argentinian roots, it would be instructive to read what previous pontiffs have said about this matter. Their analyses, for instance, indicate that the evil that was Marxism-Leninism did not create itself. Since 1891, all pontiffs, while critical of Marxism, have concluded that the first capitalists—the true free-marketeers–were responsible for creating social and economic problems that led to the appeal of Marxism by waging indiscriminate class warfare against labor and unions over wages while persuading governments to stay out of the private sector. Deteriorating social conditions in Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century forced the church to directly intervene on social, economic, and political matters to prevent Marxist Socialism from succeeding. (Excerpts on the popes’ views about the pure free-market appear in note 1 at the end).
Even while praising market forces, John Paul II, the darling of the political and economic Right, did not hesitate to critique the proverbial invisible hand:It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs. But this is true only for those needs which are “solvent”, insofar as they are endowed with purchasing power, and for those resources which are “marketable”, insofar as they are capable of obtaining a satisfactory price. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. (Centesimus Anno, 1991. 34)
Earlier, in 1931, while fighting off Marxist-Leninism, Pius XI re-stated the church’s doctrine on market forces that Leo XIII had noted at the end of the nineteenth century:Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self-direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. (Quadragesimo Anno, 88)
Francis’s critics are also quite sensitive to his reference of modern capitalism as “trickle down” economics. Rep. Peter King (Catholic) certainly did not like it; he prefers to call it “supply-side” economics, which he believes “does more to help people come out of poverty, move up in the world.” But as contemporary history goes, it was Ronald Reagan’s budget director David Stockman who intimated that conservative Republicans had to come up with a more politically palatable term than trickle-down, so they chose to call it “supply-side economics.”
Certainly, Francis should have been more precise. After all, we may agree with conservative theoretician Thomas Sowell that there is no such thing as a “trickle-down theory” per se. Instead, and regardless of any theory, Francis likely is referring to a “trickle-down outcome,” which is the net effect of modern capitalist economics. By the way, while history may give credit to Will Rogers for having coined the term, the “trickle-down” mindset already had been considered sinful two thousand years before, by Jesus, in Luke 16:19-31:There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
This brings us to another term that Francis’s critics object, which is closely related to the “trickle-down outcome”: inequality. The term itself tends to be problematic among those who believe that being critical of inequality is tantamount to advocating its opposite, equality. But this reasoning is absurd. Literally speaking, equality means complete and absolute lack of inequality. On the other hand, “inequality” lacks absoluteness as the term denotes degrees of inequality.
Moreover, Francis is not pushing for economic equality; such condition was not even contemplated in Marxist-Leninist socialism or its higher stage, communism. So, what seems to be the problem? Take, for instance, Lant Pritchett, professor of economic development at Harvard University. He says that, “Poverty matters; injustice matters. Mere inequality is beside the point.” Quite possibly Pritchett uses the term differently than Francis and others do. But then, it is difficult to know what Pritchett has in mind. He argues that he could have responded to the pope’s attack on inequality, “as a professional in that field … by detailing his (Francis) errors of fact and reasoning.” Now, that would have been enlightening. But he chose not to. “Maybe some other time,” he writes. Instead, he indicates that “if the pope can pronounce on economics, then it’s only fair that I– a full-time preacher of economics–should be allowed to opine on his grasp of Christian morality.” That he does, taking Francis to task for not knowing Christian doctrine:By dwelling on inequality, the pope is promoting envy. The Catholic Church, I had always understood, disapproves of envy, deeming it one of the seven deadly sins… Encouraging people to measure themselves against others only leads to grief. Resenting the success of others is a sin in itself…. If Francis stopped encouraging people to break the Tenth Commandment, he would have more time to instruct us on the dangers of greed and avarice, to deplore injustice and unfairness, and to call for every effort to relieve poverty.
I do not know what to make of Dr. Pritchett’s understanding of Christian doctrine. All I can come up with in terms of an explanation is that he meant to say that, ‘if the pope is allowed to make inane comments about economics—which is not his forté—then he, Pritchett, should feel “qualified” to make unintelligent observations about Christian morality’—about which, by the way, he should know better.
Pritchett seeks to make his point citing an example from his personal life: “In the course of my professional work against poverty I met Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google Inc. They are each worth about $30 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The economic inequality between them and me is vast. Should I resent them for this? Should I also envy them for being smarter than I am? Younger? Better looking?” The good professor insinuates that Francis’s views on inequality would lead people to covet Page’s and Brin’s wealth.
What could have prompted Pritchett to think that such is Francis’s way of looking at inequality? I have no answers. To assert that this or any other pope would preach envy and greed is like saying that a highly regarded medical doctor has no knowledge of medicine and instead seeks to kill his patients. Pritchett believes that inequality is an abstraction. Not so Francis. When he attacks inequality, Francis is not suggesting that the have-nots ought to be envious of those who have more; he is not attacking the rich for being wealthy. Instead, he is calling attention to the inhumane conditions that millions of people (the Lazaruses of the world) suffer–extreme deprivation, exclusion, hunger, disease, premature death–as the result of vast inequalities. At the same time, he is being critical of the attitudes that cause inequality: greed, selfishness, avarice, corruption. This was Pope Paul VI—a discreet supporter of domestic insurrections against cruel unjust conditions– in 1967 speaking on poverty, inequality and avarice:The hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance. And the Church … asks each and every man to hear his brother’s plea and answer it lovingly. (3) Unless the existing machinery is modified, the disparity between rich and poor nations will increase rather than diminish; the rich nations are progressing with rapid strides while the poor nations move forward at a slow pace. (8) Neither individuals nor nations should regard the possession of more and more goods as the ultimate objective. Thus the exclusive pursuit of material possessions prevents man’s growth as a human being and stands in opposition to his true grandeur. Avarice, in individuals and in nations, is the most obvious form of stultified moral development. (19) Are these words a call to the many to sin, to covet the wealth of the rich?
Those who disagree with Catholic social doctrine make it a point to remind the world that popes should stick to religion, which after all is their expertise (the exception apparently being Pope Francis). The problem with this view is that it projects a truncated understanding of religion. For these critics religion is exemplified by the “person-God” vertical dimension; as if Jesus’s teachings are not meant to be carried out while on earth. But doesn’t Matthew 25:31-46 exemplify the essence of Jesus’s teachings? Anyone who believes that this teaching has no social, worldwide economic implications; that it is only an egotistic advice to avoid eternal damnation, severs the Gospel from its temporal reality.
Aside from our personal individuality humans possess a social/collective dimension that is realized through the family, the village, and nowadays through the nation-state. Any religion or economic ideology that denies any of these two aspects in favor of the other does violence to our humanity. Collectivism by itself is socially harmful as it becomes highly authoritarian while extreme individualism alone tears apart our sense of community. In 1987 John Paul II cautioned critics who insist that popes should stay away from fields over which supposedly they have “scant knowledge,” that the church relies on temporal expertise in every field that relates to Christian moral doctrine:[T]he Church … reads events as they unfold in the course of history. She thus seeks to lead people to respond, with the support also of rational reflection and of the human sciences, to their vocation as responsible builders of earthly society…. (Introduction). The term “development” is taken from the vocabulary of the social and economic sciences… In addition, the social doctrine of the Church has once more demonstrated its character as an application of the word of God to people’s lives and the life of society, as well as to the earthly realities connected with them, offering “principles for reflection,” “criteria of judgment” and “directives for action.” In consequence, when the Church concerns herself with the “development of peoples,” she cannot be accused of going outside her own specific field of competence and, still less, outside the mandate received from the Lord. (8). (The Social Concern of the Church)
In his exhortation Francis suggests that,“Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” (53). And, in his encyclical on climate change he argues, “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all.” (82)
How accurate are these seemingly hyperbolic depictions of real conditions? It appears that the secular understanding of inequality is very close to what Pope Francis and many others are saying. A 2015 report by the International Monetary Fund tells us that, “Widening income inequality is the defining challenge of our time. In advanced economies, the gap between the rich and poor is at its highest level in decades.” And while there has been progress, “pervasive inequities in access to education, health care, and finance remain” in emerging markets and developing countries (p. 4).
The report doesn’t call for equality; even praises modest degrees of inequality, “As it provides the incentives for people to excel, compete, save, and invest to move ahead in life. Inequality can also influence growth positively by providing incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship.” So, why is rising inequality a concern? According to the IMF report, “Entrenched inequality of outcomes … does not generate the “right” incentives,” and instead encourage “efforts toward securing favored treatment and protection, resulting in resource misallocation, corruption, and nepotism,…” leading citizens to “lose confidence in institutions, eroding social cohesion and confidence in the future.” In addition, inequality upsets growth drivers; stifles investment, and hence growth, “by fueling economic, financial, and political instability.”
Francis’s detractors greatest disappointment, however, is not only that he misunderstands or is confused about the economic model he criticizes. Their discontent lies primarily with the pontiff’s apparent unwillingness to recognize capitalism’s merits and accomplishments. James Pethokoukis, for instance, writes, “it would be great if Pope Francis showed a deep understanding and respect for how even imperfect capitalism has generated opportunity for mass human flourishing almost unimaginable a century ago.” Ed Snider, capitalist entrepreneur and philanthropist, decries Francis’s attacks: “No system is perfect, but there is no other system that can compare. It’s what enabled this country to become great…. It pains me when I see the pope say that capitalism is terrible.”
At first glance these arguments appear to be sound; certainly, they are not necessarily incorrect. So, why shouldn’t Francis render accolades to capitalism; give credit where credit is due? Do Francis’s critics truly believe that he belittles the hen that lays golden eggs? Is he against progress? George Will suggests that much when he pontificates—secularly, that is—that Francis “stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources.”
The problem with ideological derision is that often it is vented without proper knowledge of what is being derided. Were John Paul II and Benedict XVI so harshly criticized for the same litanies that Francis is now airing? Or is it that the biased media is giving more coverage to a supposedly ‘progressive’ pope, thereby forcing his critics into action?
It would be absurd and ludicrous to think that someone who has spent his life aiding and standing for the poor does not wish to see the elimination of poverty and its nefarious consequences. Caveat: I agree with Mr. Will and others who were jolted by Francis’s critique of the increasing use of air-conditioning throughout the world as a sign of “harmful habits of consumption.” (55) (Could it be that a Greenpeace extremist infiltrated the pope’s team of advisors?) While the science behind this view is correct—it harms the environment—favoring its non-use indicates little regard—and trust–for human competence to rally the forces of science and technology to find solutions.
Now, going back to the question, why would Francis not praise capitalism? I agree that to blame an economic model alone for world poverty is an oversimplification, but I don’t think this is what Francis has in mind. What may be safely said is that since the inception of capitalism following the Industrial Revolution, poverty has persisted largely within the framework of a slightly regulated capitalist economic model that is guided and sustained by political, cultural, militaristic, and religious values, and which manifests itself in either a highly authoritarian or democratic and decentralized fashion. So Francis is casting a wide net of culpability that touches not only European and American capitalism, but its diverse manifestations in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Within this context, it would be unwarranted for someone who concerns himself with lifting millions of people from poverty to express admiration and pay tribute to a system that is primarily concerned with the financial gains of a politically and economically powerful group that subordinates the interests and wellbeing of the poor to the interests of those who benefit the most.
Further, the influential “haves,” in their quest for profits, have generated economic instability and social conflict in Third World countries throughout the twentieth century that also has contributed to the difficulties of eradicating poverty. While conservative capitalists would praise the millions who supposedly have been lifted from poverty, Francis’s critique focuses on the many more millions that are being left behind through the trickle-down approach. Francis seems to be saying that inadvertent progress through simulated virtue does not justify the capitalist model’s misdeeds. Another brief caveat: well-intentioned, highly trained, economists and statisticians continue to provide us with morally disingenuous and socially deceptive definitions, numbers, and formulas (minimum daily income? the Gini coefficient?) that prevent us from capturing the true extent of poverty, both worldwide and within nations. Why is it that governments and intergovernmental organizations (UN, World Bank, IMF, OECD) have failed to formulate an operational—yet realistic–definition of poverty that accurately depicts the undignified lives of the poor? Are they afraid of worldwide indignation?
Because “capitalism isn’t perfect,” as Pethokoukis reminds us, it seems superfluous but necessary to say that Francis’s critique of capitalism is not directed against the progress it has created, but at the extreme unequal and unjust distribution of rewards and satisfied needs that leaves millions in destitution. It is not good enough, Francis is saying about modern capitalism; when it comes to human lives, we should do better. Wishing to live a dignified life has nothing to do with coveting my neighbor’s wealth. Anyone who fails to understand this point seems to reside in a self-erected bubble.
As for the rumor that Francis is a closet-Marxist, I think it is imperative that all the Rush Limbaughs of the world try to overcome simple philosophical idiocies and seek a basic understanding of the concept. A Marxist-Leninist system exists when the following prevail: an atheist, undemocratic, authoritarian form of government, with a centrally planned economy, a single ideology and political party, and the nonexistence of a private sector and private property. The Catholic Church—Francis included—has, for some time now, been strongly opposed to all these features.
Lastly, are there valid critical observations that we can formulate regarding Pope Francis’s condemnation of modern capitalism? Probably there are several; I’ll focus on one: consumerism.
Aside of the unjust inequalities, environmental degradation, and human suffering that modern capitalism is both inadvertently and deliberately responsible for, Francis directs much of his harsh criticism toward the culture of “extreme,” “compulsive,” “unbridled,” and “unethical” consumerism “bereft of social or ecological awareness.” In Francis’s words:The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. Evangelii Gaudium (2)
Interestingly enough, some of Francis’s critics appear to embrace his denunciation of what we may call “materialistic individualism,” counterpart to materialistic communism. Ponnuru indicates that, “The pope is persuasive when he counsels against consumerism and challenges us to give priority to moral and spiritual values over merely material ones.” Nicole Gelinas, concedes that the risks of consumerism as Francis describes them “are real,” although she claims that it is not “the fault of capitalism.” Senator John McCain, though not impressed with Francis’s economic perspective, still admires the pope’s “more modern outlook on social issues.” Sen. Pat Toomey thinks “he’s a wonderful leader for the church.” Arthur Brooks claims that “taken as a whole, the exhortation is good and right and beautiful.” Are they being serious, condescending, or just naïve?
Consumerism, the urge to satisfy material desires, has been the latest craze since the second half of the twentieth century. Although we know that individual life on earth comes to an end, consumerism still lures the rich and the poor. Today’s consumerism is different from yesterday’s “conspicuous consumption (Chapter 4) whose objective was to show-off one’s status. Consumerism today operates subconsciously (we are conditioned by its structures); its object being not to survive or even make life on earth bearable, but as enjoyable and pleasant as possible (not necessarily evil in and of itself within limits).
Consumerism is, indeed, an off-shoot of modern capitalism; we are driven by the desire to buy the “good” things that the capitalist market entices us with to make life supposedly better. Consumerism is highly individualistic in the sense that it compels the individual to work (or engage in corruption) in order to procure anything that brings pleasure to our lives. In this sense, it is hedonistic, i.e., sensuously materialistic.
On the other hand, consumerism has a deceptive social component; unless they are loners, people seek pleasure by enjoying what they procure with friends, acquaintances, relatives, even strangers. Consumerism extends into virtually all aspects of personal living: entertainment, leisure, transportation, the arts, jewelry, beverages, gambling, electronics, physical wellbeing, personal appearance, durable goods, expensive and inexpensive gadgets that ease “the burden of living.” Even economic sectors that in the past were considered human needs, such as clothing, food, and housing now have become essential parts of a consumerist disposition.
Today’s highly interactive planet is perilously operating within a somewhat regulated form of liberal capitalism that is sustained by “invisible and autonomous forces”–a multitude of transnational and national corporate entities, each pursuing financial gain, and hundreds of political states seeking their individual economic national interests while tenuously abiding by self-imposed national and international regulations. Francis may be aware that, for now and well into the long future, whether we like it or not—and there is much to like and dislike—consumerism constitutes the most powerful engine of growth in the world. Its economic and political significance is such that if our consumption habits were to end (i.e., if we were to imitate Francis’s lifestyle) without there being an alternative model of human living, humankind would experience a crisis the likes of which we have never seen. A slow yet continuous shrinking of the world economy (a reversal of trickle-down) would accelerate and trigger worldwide unemployment and social and political upheavals that probably would generate domestic revolutions and wars. These conditions may lead to a radical outcome—a possible silver lining–that, depending on the extent of universal consent regarding its design, could ameliorate the crisis or worsen it; I’m referring to world government. Such world government, when it happens, would not take place by choice or through the love of nations, as Francis would prefer it, but by sheer necessity.
The paradox, then, is all too clear: consumerism is likely to keep driving world economic growth resulting in asymmetrical development, sluggishly eradicating poverty or expanding it. At the same time, consumerism’s highly individualistic and materialistic nature numbs the heart making it more difficult for Francis to remedy the undignified conditions that the majority of the world’s population are being called to endure. It is up to this pope and his successors, among others, to awaken our individual and social consciences, both in the private and government sectors, in the hope that those who are marginalized worldwide may benefit in the same manner many of us do.
Notes Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891: “[W]orking men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury … under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than of slavery itself.” (1-3).
Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, on social conditions in the nineteenth century in Western Europe: “[I]n many nations those at the helm of State, plainly imbued with Liberalism (i.e., conservative capitalism) were showing little favor to workers’ associations of this type; nay, rather they openly opposed them, and while going out of their way to recognize similar organizations of other classes and show favor to them, they were with criminal injustice denying the natural right to form associations to those who needed it most to defend themselves from ill treatment at the hands of the powerful. (30)
Property, that is, “capital,” has undoubtedly long been able to appropriate too much to itself. Whatever was produced, whatever returns accrued, capital claimed for itself, hardly leaving to the worker enough to restore and renew his strength. For the doctrine was preached that all accumulation of capital falls by an absolutely insuperable economic law to the rich, and that by the same law the workers are given over and bound to perpetual want, to the scantiest of livelihoods.” (54)
John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 1961, on social conditions in the nineteenth century in Western Europe: “As is well known, the outlook that prevailed on economic matters was for the most part a purely naturalistic one, which denied any correlation between economics and morality. Personal gain was considered the only valid motive for economic activity. In business the main operative principle was that of free and unrestricted competition. Interest on capital, prices—whether of goods or of services—profits and wages, were to be determined by the purely mechanical application of the laws of the market place. Every precaution was to be taken to prevent the civil authority from intervening in any way in economic matters. The status of trade unions varied in different countries. They were either forbidden, tolerated, or recognized as having private legal personality only. In an economic world of this character, it was the might of the strongest which not only arrogated to itself the force of law, but also dominated the ordinary business relationships between individuals, and thereby undermined the whole economic structure. Enormous riches accumulated in the hands of a few, while large numbers of workingmen found themselves in conditions of ever-increasing hardship. Wages were insufficient even to the point of reaching starvation level, and working conditions were often of such a nature as to be injurious alike to health, morality and religious faith. Especially inhuman were the working conditions to which women and children were sometimes subjected. There was also the constant specter of unemployment and the progressive disruption of family life.” (11-13)
– On conditions in the early part of the twentieth century in Europe: “Pius XI was not unaware of the fact that in the forty years that had supervened since the publication of the Leonine encyclical the historical scene had altered considerably. It was clear, for example, that unregulated competition had succumbed to its own inherent tendencies to the point of practically destroying itself. It had given rise to a great accumulation of wealth, and, in the process, concentrated a despotic economic power in the hands of a few “who for the most part are not the owners, but only the trustees and directors of invested funds, which they administer at their own good pleasure.” (35).
John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 1981, on conditions that gave way to the rise of Marxist ideology: “The call to solidarity and common action addressed to the workers-especially to those engaged in narrowly specialized, monotonous and depersonalized work in industrial plants, when the machine tends to dominate man – was important and eloquent from the point of view of social ethics. It was the reaction against the degradation of man as the subject of work, and against the unheard-of accompanying exploitation in the field of wages, working conditions and social security for the worker. This reaction united the working world in a community marked by great solidarity.
[i]t must be frankly recognized that the reaction against the system of injustice and harm that cried to heaven for vengeance13 and that weighed heavily upon workers in that period of rapid industrialization was justified from the point of view of social morality. This state of affairs was favoured by the liberal socio-political system, which, in accordance with its “economistic” premises, strengthened and safeguarded economic initiative by the possessors of capital alone, but did not pay sufficient attention to the rights of the workers, on the grounds that human work is solely an instrument of production, and that capital is the basis, efficient factor and purpose of production.” (8)
“Throughout this period, which is by no means yet over, the issue of work has of course been posed on the basis of the great conflict that in the age of, and together with, industrial development emerged between “capital” and “labour”, that is to say between the small but highly influential group of entrepreneurs, owners or holders of the means of production, and the broader multitude of people who lacked these means and who shared in the process of production solely by their labour. The conflict originated in the fact that the workers put their powers at the disposal of the entrepreneurs, and these, following the principle of maximum profit, tried to establish the lowest possible wages for the work done by the employees. In addition there were other elements of exploitation, connected with the lack of safety at work and of safeguards regarding the health and living conditions of the workers and their families. This conflict, interpreted by some as a socioeconomic class conflict, found expression in the ideological conflict between liberalism, understood as the ideology of capitalism, and Marxism, understood as the ideology of scientific socialism and communism, which professes to act as the spokesman for the working class and the worldwide proletariat. Thus the real conflict between labour and capital was transformed into a systematic class struggle, conducted not only by ideological means but also and chiefly by political means.” (11)
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 1991, explaining conditions that gave rise to Marxism in Europe: “A new form of property had appeared (in 1891) — capital; and a new form of labour — labour for wages, characterized by high rates of production which lacked due regard for sex, age or family situation, and were determined solely by efficiency, with a view to increasing profits. In this way labour became a commodity to be freely bought and sold on the market, its price determined by the law of supply and demand, without taking into account the bare minimum required for the support of the individual and his family. Moreover, the worker was not even sure of being able to sell “his own commodity”, continually threatened as he was by unemployment, which, in the absence of any kind of social security, meant the specter of death by starvation. Thus the prevailing political theory of the time sought to promote total economic freedom by appropriate laws, or, conversely, by a deliberate lack of any intervention. (4)
The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State. It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the Government”. (10)
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