Andrew Abela's recent piece at the National Catholic Register is helpful in unpacking what I mention here as Pope Francis's focus not on "unfettered capitalism" and markets as such, but rather on the "ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation."
What does the Pope mean by [the statement that we "can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market"]? It is not likely that he could be condemning the market economy system in its entirety and proposing socialism in its place, because in doing so he would be contradicting the unbroken teaching of popes since Leo XIII in 1891. On the contrary, the document affirms that “it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives” (192) and that welfare projects “should be considered merely temporary responses” (202).
It also doesn’t seem to make sense to say that Pope Francis is criticizing the entirely unregulated, and mythical, “laissez faire” economy, because, surely, he knows as well as anybody that this does not exist anywhere in reality. Nor is he likely to be condemning markets as such, since the justice and usefulness of markets have been acknowledged by popes and theologians for centuries.
What, then, is he criticizing? It appears that the Holy Father is denouncing the ideology (56) that when human beings are left alone to contract freely with one another, then the best of all possible worlds will arise. Like most ideologies, this one takes a good idea — of markets, which in themselves are the fairest and most efficient way to manage economic transactions — and extends it far beyond its proper scope.
Common sense alone should be sufficient to show the fallacy of this ideology: Without clear and fair ground rules for economic activity, and without principled behavior by participants, an economy cannot run efficiently, let alone justly. Indeed, the Church has taught consistently that the market economy needs to be founded on what Pope John Paul II called a “strong juridical framework” (Centesimus Annus, 42) that orients economic activity towards the common good (Evangelii Gaudium, 56 and 203). She teaches, further, that charity is the guiding principle even of our political and economic relationships (205, citing Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate).
As far as it goes, this is all pretty reasonable. Abela goes one step further, though, in preempting the usual rebuttal: "What does this have to do with the real world?"
Here are two examples of this ideology in action, which are prevalent in our society and which certainly justify Pope Francis’ criticism. The first is “crony capitalism,” where firms depend more on political connections than on market success. Here, the belief in absolute autonomy leads them to make “investments” (typically through lobbying) to change the juridical framework underlying the market in order to receive special favors, such as “corporate welfare” or preferential regulation that inhibits new competition.
The second is a phenomenon that economist Andy Yuengert of Pepperdine University calls “the market made me do it.” Business leaders will sometimes take actions that are inconsistent with human decency, such as paying very low wages, and claim that they were forced into such actions because of the competitive realities of the market. While this can sometimes be the case, at other times, it is a cop-out, reflecting a lack of imagination on the part of management.
This final claim, that Pope Francis's message is geared in part to combatting a "lack of imagination" is, I think, central to taking the Holy Father's words in their proper context. As I've remarked elsewhere, paragraph 57 of Evangelii Gaudium is easy to overlook—namely that "Behind [the thirst for power and possessions] lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God." The type of ethics entailed in moral markets requires a gaze trained on the unseen yet truly good things that defy the "categories of the marketplace." It requires, in a word, imagination.
"Unbridled capitalism" as a reality is tough to locate. But reality "absolutized" under the "categories of the market" is an all too common occurrence. So is a lack of imagination. And indeed, these are the very things Pope Francis seeks to caution against.