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Pope Benedict Defends Francis on Markets and Ethics

Pope Francis commented recently on accusations of Marxism stemming from anti-market language employed in Evangelii Gaudium. Unfortunately overshadowed by his new status as TIME’s Person of the Year (apparently one of the few things that trumps a papal interview these days), the remarks are concise and support the reading  of EG offered here, here, and here.

When asked about criticism by “ultraconservatives in the USA” who called him a Marxist, Francis replied:

The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.

[. . .] There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger [sic] nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.

Also overlooked amidst the fallout from Evangelii Gaudium was a statement by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, which defended not only Francis’s remarks in EG, but also their specific context, as as well as the greater role of the Church vis-à-vis economics and morality. In his own release, Benedict wrote:

In order to find solutions that will truly lead us forward, new economic ideas will be necessary. But such measures do not seem conceivable or, above all, practicable without new moral impulses. It is at this point that a dialogue between Church and economy becomes both possible and necessary.

Let me clarify somewhat the exact point in question. At first glance, precisely in terms of classical economic theory, it is not obvious what the Church and the economy should actually have to do with one another, aside from the fact that the Church owns businesses and so is a factor in the market. The Church should not enter into dialogue here as a mere component in the economy, but rather in its own right as Church.

Benedict went on to castigate Smithian economics, in particular—a system where “voluntary ‘moral’ actions contradict market rules and drive the moralizing entrepreneur out of the game”—as a culprit against which the Church must align:

The great successes of this theory concealed its limitations for a long time. But now in a changed situation, its tacit philosophical presuppositions and thus its problems become clearer. Although this position admits the freedom of individual businessmen, and to that extent can be called liberal, it is in fact deterministic in its core. It presupposes that the free play of market forces can operate in one direction only, given the constitution of man and the world, namely, toward the self-regulation of supply and demand, and toward economic efficiency and progress.

As Francis remarked, however, “Marxist ideology is wrong,” too. And Benedict pulled no punches in backing this claim, as well.

In terms of the structure of its economic theory and praxis, the Marxist system as a centrally administered economy is a radical antithesis to the market economy. Salvation is expected because there is no private control of the means of production, because supply and demand are not brought into harmony through market competition, because there is no place for private profit seeking, and because all regulations proceed from a central economic administration. Yet, in spite of this radical opposition in the concrete economic mechanisms, there are also points in common in the deeper philosophical presuppositions. The first of these consists in the fact that Marxism, too, is deterministic in nature and that it too promises a perfect liberation as the fruit of this determinism. For this reason, it is a fundamental error to suppose that a centralized economic system is a moral system in contrast to the mechanistic system of the market economy. This becomes clearly visible, for example, in Lenin’s acceptance of Sombart’s thesis that there is in Marxism no grain of ethics, but only economic laws.

It’s apparent, here, that Benedict was referring, at least in part, to claims made in paragraph 57 of Evangelii Gaudium, which reads:

Behind [the thirst for power and possessions] lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.

Driving home his defense—and frankly, his more pointed rendition—of Francis’s economic critiques in EG, Benedict noted:

[W]e can no longer regard so naively the liberal-capitalistic system (even with all the corrections it has since received) as the salvation of the world. We are no longer in the Kennedy-era, with its Peace Corps optimism; the Third World’s questions about the system may be partial, but they are not groundless. A self-criticism of the Christian confessions with respect to political and economic ethics is the first requirement.

It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse. An economic policy that is ordered not only to the good of the group – indeed, not only to the common good of a determinate state – but to the common good of the family of man demands a maximum of ethical discipline and thus a maximum of religious strength. The political formation of a will that employs the inherent economic laws towards this goal appears, in spite of all humanitarian protestations, almost impossible today. It can only be realized if new ethical powers are completely set free. A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.

As unprecedented as such a lengthy defense of a reigning pope by a former pope may be, probably the most uncanny feature is the exact timing of Benedict’s statement, which came in November of 1985—nearly thirty years before the publication of Evangelii Gaudium.



Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Chase

    The point is that the market won’t fix morality (in fact it may do the opposite). At best, an increased emphasis on morality will improve the market. Economic issues are, perhaps, more socially-based than we think. And that’s certainly not Marxist.

  • Paul S.

    No quarrel with Benedict here. I don’t regard free markets as the salvation of the world any more than democracy. (though the former has a better track record than the latter in contributing to human flourishing) The world needs Christ.
    For everyday living though, the free market system + Christian charity whether individual or from groups practicing subsidiarity is the way to go. No pseudo-marxist, redistributionist, “3rd way” required.

    • maxime1793

      The old Catholic Third Way was corporatism and distributivism, as supported by ultra-conservatives of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This would be State control of finance and solid regulation of natural resources and utilities, but a lot of market freedom on the ground for small businesses and independent farmers. Note that society is moving in the opposite direction, with pointless nanny state regulations on small businesses while even the most basic natural resources are gradually being privatised and private banks basically control the State.

      • Paul S.

        Right, placing more power in the hands of a friendly state. There’s no guaranteeing that the state will be friendly to Catholics, so I’d much prefer continuing to change society by the culture rather than looking to a grand political solution. I’m still going to vote, though I may hold my nose at the ballot box.
        (and as a Catholic who fell in love with (and serves) the Latin, I’m not a radical trad by any means. Our numbers are growing… )

  • J. Alejandro

    I’m beginning to suspect that at the core of the American Catholic dilemma the problem is that the American “liberal” Catholic (often liberal first, Catholic second) rejoices in the conflation he makes between freedom of the market and capitalism only to hide his contempt for the latter at the expense of the essential aspect of the former: freedom.

    The American “conservative” Catholic (often conservative first, Catholic second) rejoices in the conflation he makes between socialism and an organic allocation of resources only to hide contempt for the former at the expense of the essential aspect of the latter: solidarity.

    • maxime1793

      The essential problem of American Catholicism is that, since the Sixties or so, it has ceased to be a different way of life, and has been entirely subsumed into the American social and political spectrum. The Church is so starved of influence and afraid of losing members, it has largely lost standards. Out of fear, it only speaks out on a few issues and otherwise equivocates (the idiotic, waffling performances of Cardinal Dolan in the media should confirm this).

      The young liberal Catholics I know are essentially what the sociologists are beginning to call “Moral Therapeutic Deists” except with some respect for the Eucharist or Marian Devotion. They are otherwise inseparable from the mass of secular youth who think gay marriage is part of a great liberation of the ability of man to be happy, uninhibited from irrational, controlling forces. They have faith that one day Pope Francis will reform the Church to fit their secular notions of what it should be.

      Then there are basically Republicans who happen to be born Catholic and who think they are the ‘good Catholics’ because they say they are pro-life and vote for politicians who say they are pro-life but hardly ever face meaningful votes on the subject. If you try to talk about economics or war, they have no idea what the Vatican’s position is, and then oddly begin to insist that not every political question is a moral one. In their own way, they are just as secular as liberal American Catholics.

      And who actually follows the Catechism and Papal Encyclicals on most all matters? Usually hard-core converts from Protestantism who were actually seeking something different, otherwise, maybe a sort of internal convert, Catholics born into a mainstream Catholic family who go the radically Traditionalist Tridentine Mass route. I’ve known a couple of those – one is a monastic priest in Canada now. Good for him. Unfortunately, they are marginalised.

  • The anti-capitalist creed:

    “Unfettered capitalism has never existed, it is a stupid libertarian utopian fantasy.”

    “Unfettered capitalism is the dominant economic model around the globe and is responsible for all of the world’s problems and injustices.”

    Heads I win, tails you lose.

    • maxime1793

      No. The second is in response to mainstream capitalists and neoliberals, referencing the obvious and predictable problems that resulted from various waves of deregulation (and, in other countries, privatisation). That the capitalist world has been on a markedly different path from about 1975 onwards compared to 1945-75 is unmistakable in both policies and statistical results.

      The first is in response to libertarians/paleoliberals/Ron Paul fanatics/anarcho-libertarians, etc. They have their own version of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’:

      (1) “All human progress is due to capitalism”.

      (2) “If you point out a seemingly contrary situation, we will point out how there is still SOME State intervention, which is the source of ALL our problems. Unfettered capitalism has never existed, because we have not been clever, or brave, enough to try it”.

  • maxime1793

    Popper and Hayek were not Christians in any sense; Smith was a Calvinist who regretted how his writings were interpreted. I might agree that it is vaguely more possible to have a Christian society with a classical liberal political and economic tradition than with a purely Marxist one, but not a lasting one, and not when compared to socialism generally (Marxist or non-marxist).

    Besides, they are not the only two economic systems on offer, and that really has been the point of Catholic economics, a point unfortunately rather poorly expressed in the time of JPII.

  • maxime1793

    By “get justification right”, I guess you mean adopting an extreme form of Augustine’s arguments, thereby taking after what Calvin borrowed from the periphery of the Catholic tradition itself, and its hopelessly legalistic Latin terminology? I guess they should adopt the ridiculous idea that once justified, you are always justified, as if that has any spiritual benefit and is not immediately corruptible?

    Obviously they are not going to adopt failed doctrine.

    As regards “other people’s money”, that is an interesting concept. Do you think Christians control world finance? Do you think the people who run Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, CitiGroup, Bank of America, etc., ‘earned’ their power over the world economy, making money off of usury with the help of governmental and quasi-governmental institutions through fraud and corruption?

    God gave us life, He did not apportion us a given lot of property or wealth. The economy should promote civilisation and human welfare, human beings are not meant to be slaves to the economy.

  • maxime1793

    Even if you have a type of “market” all through economic history, it is not always of the same nature. There is no thread that I can recall in Catholic social teaching that sees, for example, selling your extra produce as inherently corrupting. CST only arose with the development of industrial capitalism and the widespread exploitation of labour – typically of people whose parents or grandparents had owned a little land but were more or less forced off of it by “market” forces. The secular liberal sees “progress” in industrialisation because there was growth in production, in money, and eventually in human development. However, the greatest number of people, deprived of property, were and have frankly continued to be slaves to other masters in a manner that you could not deem universal to all times in world history.

    Another factor is financial capitalism, based on usury, that the Church has always been against in name, although elements of it have collaborated with usurous capital and benefited from it (e.g., Venice). The Church Fathers, however, did not mince words, pointing out that any usurous system left to its own devices leads to the enslavement of the many, since production can never keep pace in the long term with a profitable rate of interest. There may have always been usurers historically, but not to the same degree, with the same legal protections, and same amount of power.

    So I think it is right for the Church to offer not only personal moral instruction, but to critique systemic reality, leading to suggestions for political and economic change.

  • maxime1793

    “I observe the exact opposite in America. Atheists and “spiritual but not religious” types are more socially generous than conservative religious folks.”

    —There is no evidence of atheists being more generous. You might observe it in your own life, but then again, it might be due to being more repulsed by the hypocrisy of some. ‘Spiritual but not religious’ might be generous, but not more than ‘spiritual and also religious’ (vs. cradle-Catholics, cradle-Protestants). At a basic level, being spiritual is being religious.

    “are more in favor of policies promoting the common good (food stamps, raising the minimum wage, progressive taxation”

    —There is not a big difference between Christians and non-Christians on these issues, according to polling data I’ve seen. Maybe evangelicals have in the last years alone (they used to mostly be New Deal conservative Democrats) become slightly more anti-welfare, but not Christians as a whole. In any case, advocating for food stamps is not evidence of being a charitable person. WAL-MART advocates for food stamps in order to subsidise the low wages they pay their employees.

    “I also see a sure-footed ethical and moral intuition in the writings of such despised atheist figures as Dawkins and Sam Harris”

    —You may be the only one who does. The ‘New Atheists’ are really shameful, far worse than old Marxist Atheists, and inconsistent to the core. Really they are just polemicists with a pathological hatred of religion, whereas Marxists tried to analyse religion and religious ethics as a scientifically understandable stage of human development.

  • alaanile

    Having just now re-read this, I see that you dispensed with the farce in the closing paragraph. Not the most impressive display of intellectual honesty. There are people out there thinking that this is current, which is how I came across this post. Someone sent it to me.

    نقل عفش بالرياض

    كشف تسربات المياه بالرياض

    شركة عزل مائى بالرياض

    نقل عفش بجدة

    نقل عفش مكة

    تنظيف مساجد بجدة

    شركة الأحمدي لنقل الأثاث

    شركة عزل خزانات

    شركات مكافحة حشرات

    شركة كشف تسربات بالرياض

    شركات العزل الحراري

    شركة عزل مائي

    شركة القمة لمكافحة الفئران والقوارض

    مكافحة البق

    شركات مكافحة النمل الابيض

    شركة كشف تسربات المياه ومعالجتها

    شركة كشف تسربات بالرياض

    نقل اثاث

    شركة رش مبيدات بالمدينة المنورة

    شركة تنظيف مسابح بالمدينة المنورة

    شركة تنظيف موكيت بالمدينة المنورة

    رش مبيدات بمكة

    شركة عزل خزانات بجدة

    شركة تسليك مجارى بجدة

    شركة مكافحة حشرات بالدمام

    شركة تنظيف فلل بالدمام

    نقل اثاث بالدمام

    مكافحة حشرات بالرياض

    كشف تسربات المياه بالرياض

    شركة تنظيف بالرياض

    شركة نقل اثاث بالقاهرة

    شركة كشف تسربات المياه تبوك

    ابي وايت صرف صحي بالرياض



  • alaanile

    Having just now re-read this, I see that you dispensed with the farce in the closing paragraph. Not the most impressive display of intellectual honesty. There are people out there thinking that this is current, which is how I came across this post. Someone sent it to me.



  • amina2015