In the wake of the publication of Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, there was a great deal of negative commentary regarding the pope’s attitude toward capitalism and private property. Many readers interpreted Francis to mean that the capitalist system is, in itself, exploitative and that the holding of private property is morally problematic. Like most who write in a prophetic mode, Pope Francis is indeed given to strong and challenging language, and therefore, it is easy enough to understand how he excites opposition. But it is most important to read what he says with care and to interpret it within the context of the long tradition of Catholic social teaching.

First, in regard to capitalism, or what the Church prefers to call the “market economy,” the pope has this to say: “Business activity is essentially ‘a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world’” (Fratelli Tutti, 123). He thereby distances himself from any ideology that would simply demonize capitalism, and clearly affirms that a morally praiseworthy economic arrangement is one that not only distributes wealth but creates it through entrepreneurship. Moreover, he argues, a certain self-interest, including the taking of profit, is not repugnant to the moral purpose of economic activity: “In God’s plan, each individual is called to promote his or her own development, and this includes finding the best economic and technological means of multiplying goods and increasing wealth” (123).  In making these observations, Francis stands firmly in the tradition of St. John Paul II, who saw the market economy as an arena for the exercise of human creativity, ingenuity, and courage, and who endeavored to draw ever more people into its dynamism. He also reiterates the teaching of the founder of the modern Catholic social tradition, the great Leo XIII, who, in Rerum Novarum, strenuously defended private property and, using a number of arguments, repudiated socialist economic arrangements. So I hope we can put to rest the silly canard that Pope Francis is an enemy of capitalism and a cheerleader for global socialism.

Now, without gainsaying any of this, we must, at the same time, point out that, like all of his papal predecessors in the social teaching tradition, without exception, Francis also recommends limits, both legal and moral, to the market economy. And in this context, he insists upon what classical Catholic theology refers to as the “universal destination of goods.” Here is how Francis states the idea in Fratelli Tutti: “The right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use” (123). In making the distinction between ownership and use, Pope Francis is hearkening back to St. Thomas Aquinas, who made the relevant distinction in question 66 of the secunda secundae of the Summa theologiae. For a variety of reasons, St. Thomas argues, people have the right to “procure and dispense” the goods of the world and hence to hold them as “property.” But in regard to the use of what they legitimately own, they must always keep the general welfare first in mind: “On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.”

Praise the Lord

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