Is the church moving to an embrace of capitalism?

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Greg Sisk writes that the church learned to embrace the concept of religious liberty after rejecting it or being wary of it for many centuries.  He believes that in the same way the church will also learn over time to recognize and accept the values of capitalism.

Sisk, however, is wrong on both counts. First, the church has really not accepted the American idea of religious liberty. It is true that the great American theologian John Courtney Murray understood the concept and pushed for adoption by the church. It is also true that the Declaration on Religious Freedom was passed by the council fathers of the Second Vatican Council, so that it is officially the teaching of the church.

However, not long after the document was signed it was apparent that many church leaders did not really understand the concept, and/or wanted the teaching to be seen as less significant. Many bishops remained suspicious of it. Since the council, church documents have tended to emphasize the earlier Catholic concept of freedom, which basically suggests that one has the freedom to accept the truth as the church teaches it. You don’t really have freedom of conscience. Your conscience must be formed by the teaching of the church and if it is not, you are somehow operating in bad faith. A sincere conscience could not legitimately question the truth of what the church teaches.

It is only more recently that the notion of religious liberty has been revived by the Catholic bishops here in the United States. They have done so only because they developed a strategy whereby they felt they could use it to their advantage. The bishops don’t talk about individual freedom or the freedom of conscience. They talk about the freedom of the church to essentially impose its will, not only on its own subjects, but on anyone, like employees, that they can define as having some tangential relationship with the church.

This is hardly the stuff of American religious freedom. There is very little evidence that the leaders of the church understand or accept the American concept of religious liberty, so Sisk is wrong regarding his first point

His second premise is that government intervention is almost always bad, while free markets are good. Sisk apparently sees Pope John Paul II as the good guy on capitalism and Pope Francis as the bad guy. He notes that John Paul II is in favor of free market capitalism if it is structured within a “juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality… it must be ethical and religious.” I doubt Pope Francis would have any difficulty with that statement.

Neither pope has a quarrel with capitalism within a properly regulated context. Their message is the same. The only real difference is one of tone. Because of Pope Francis’ lived experience with the poor in South America he brings a deeper level of emotion and intensity to the table.

Francis’ vision is pretty simple. His experience in South America shows what happens in Third World countries. Those with money and power control and promote what is good for them. In our own country one wonders why so many people listen to Donald Trump today? Why are people responding to him? If you see the material world and financial success as the most important thing in life his message is likely to resonate. Under this system the poor are marginalized and forgotten.

The free market system is based on the notion that if left unfettered the market will create an economy that is good for everyone. It is the familiar trickle down theory. It may be good for getting the economy moving and growing. Too many people, however, are left by the wayside and do not benefit without carefully targeted safeguards to assist the poor.

The church has been consistent regarding its social justice beliefs for many years and Pope Francis is well within that tradition. Neither the church nor Pope Francis is attacking capitalism. They are attacking unfettered capitalism.

Both Sisk and Pope Francis would agree that capitalism needs to be regulated. Their disagreement is over the details of how that can be appropriately done. Sisk and many free market capitalists agree in principle over the need for some regulation but seem to have difficulty finding any specific regulations they like or would accept. Their belief in the free market system makes it difficult for them to see the deficiencies the system contains. There are very few existing regulations that free market advocates are not currently seeking to have lifted.

Pope Francis sees the poor. He sees that they are not being helped but are being hurt by the system. It is obvious that things about the system must change if the poor are going to have a chance to do better. When Sisk and others begin to talk about concrete steps they will take to make life better for the poor we can have a dialogue. As long as all they can talk about is the benefits of capitalism and how it needs greater freedom to operate, there is not much to say. It is difficult to see how the church could or would change its views on the need for greater social justice in the foreseeable future. 

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