Much attention has been paid lately to Pope Francis’ remarks on income inequality. Many politically liberal Catholics are happy with his remarks because they feel he is moving the Church away from social issues, focusing instead on fiscal problems like income inequality. In April, for example, Pope Francis tweeted that “Inequality is the root of social evil,” a tweet which was re-tweeted thousands of times. And recent writings of his have attacked capitalism and profits, including one which denounced “trickle-down economics.” While I understand why this excites liberals, who are “just so done” with all that stopping abortion and promoting the true definition of marriage stuff, I respectfully find his arguments against capitalism to be incorrect, as a few strolls around Rome and Vatican City would show him.
Pope Francis’ opposition to the free-market comes from his belief in the promotion of social justice. In “Evangelii Gaudium” Pope Francis writes “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.”
The belief is consistent with the idea of bringing people in to the community. In Pope Francis’ eyes, a market economy excludes the poor and the homeless the same way the lepers were once kept outside of the city. Jesus of course talked the most about the marginalized; the tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, and women. And from this teaching stems most Catholic teaching, on promoting the dignity of people. Catholic social teaching is centered around helping the most vulnerable; the unborn, the imprisoned, the poor.
However, a closer examination of the market economy, specifically how it functions in Rome and Vatican City proves that capitalism actually brings people in to the economy, and does not exclude them. I saw this first hand when, at the beginning of June, I took a trip to Italy as part of my duties as The College Conservative’s (Unofficial) International Correspondent (which conveniently happened to coincide with a long-planned family vacation).
My family had the pleasure of taking several driving tours of Rome and the Vatican. These were not government-run tours, but were managed by private guides giving tours of Rome and the Vatican. I did not have a chance to ask the drivers if they felt oppressed by the capitalistic system that allowed their work to exist, nor if they felt guilt for adding to the income inequality gap by making money, but judging by the general pleasantness of the tour guides, I surmise they were quite happy to be able to work every day and share their knowledge with tourists.
At night, the local restaurants aggressively compete for your business. In what is possibly the purest form of an open market, waiters come up to you to market their restaurants directly. The large amount of restaurants benefit consumers, as every restaurant posts their menus and prices outside so that no restaurant can charge much more than their opponents.
While eating dinner outside, vendors and musicians are likely to come to your table, advertising their wares or playing their instruments with the hope that you’ll give them a few euros. Again, I was not able to ask if they felt oppressed, but seeing as the best of these individuals could easily make a good day’s wages from their wares or their talents, I imagine they did not feel oppressed.
This was an economy of talents: the people were using their God-given abilities to not just make money, but also to improve someone else’s happiness (why else would you pay for something if it did not make your life better?). They seemed not to be contributing to an evil, greedy system, but were instead following the words of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The economy I witnessed celebrated the human person. An economy of flourishing is one in which people are free to pursue their trades. An economy in which people are free to pursue their trades, set their hours, and promote their business is one that represents the dignity of workers. When people are allowed own their own business they can be the best employer they desire.
While I think Pope Francis is a wonderful Pope, I believe he may misunderstand how capitalism does not weaken the value of a person, but rather celebrates it. Yes, the tour guides were making money by bringing us to the Vatican, but why does this matter? Everyone in that transaction wins: the tour guide made money; foreign tourists were able to learn more about a place than they ever could from books or the internet; and the Catholic Church was able to show off St. Peter’s Square, the basilicas, and everything else it had to offer. The musicians and vendors were also able to show off their talents, instead of hiding them under a bushel basket. This does not rob them a dignity, but rather celebrates their dignity by promoting their individual talents. It is this freedom which brings about human flourishing and the promotion of the whole human person.