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You may have seen this article, or a similar one, over this past weekend. The headline does a good job of summarizing the story: “Pope Assails Marxism, Capitalism.” The first sentence:
Pope Benedict XVI blamed both Marxism and unbridled capitalism for Latin America’s problems on Sunday, urging bishops to mold a new generation of Roman Catholic leaders in politics to reverse the church’s declining influence in the region.
We have to wait all the way to the third sentence to read:
Like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Benedict criticized capitalism’s negative effects as well as the Marxist influences that have motivated some grass-roots Catholic activists.
Okay, okay, we get it. The Pope has problems with both capitalism and Marxism. And, actually, this is true.
But let’s take a closer look at his remarks.
“In Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in other regions, there has been notable progress towards democracy, although there are grounds for concern in the face of authoritarian forms of government and regimes wedded to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded, and which do not correspond to the Christian vision of man and society as taught by the Social Doctrine of the Church. On the other side of the coin, the liberal [i.e., free-market] economy of some Latin American countries must take account of equity, because of the ever increasing sectors of society that find themselves oppressed by immense poverty or even despoiled of their own natural resources.”
Here, the Pope is absolutely ‘assailing’ Marxism. But he’s not saying that capitalism doesn’t ‘correspond to the Christian vision of man and society.’ He’s saying that capitalist societies need to be careful about being fair. That’s hardly an indictment of the entire system, now is it?
Here’s the only place in the remarks where he directly criticizes the principle of capitalism itself, but only for what it is lacking:
“In truth,” he added, “just structures are a condition without which a just order in society is not possible. But how do they arise? How do they function? Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves; … that not only would they have no need of any prior individual morality, but that they would promote a communal morality.
“And this ideological promise has been proved false. The facts have clearly demonstrated it. The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit. And we can also see the same thing happening in the West, where the distance between rich and poor is growing constantly, and giving rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.
In other words, capitalism lacks a core morality. And although I would argue that far more extravagant claims have been made on behalf of Marxism’s ability to dispense with individual morality, I think the Pope is right. In fact, he’s echoing John Adams, who said:
Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Actually, I’m sure that Pope Benedict is well aware of the different threats Marxism and capitalism pose. Where Marxism strips individuals of freedom, capitalism dependsupon freedom. But if the culture goes awry, then people can confuse freedom with license. I think the phrase “degradation of personal dignity” sums up the problems of the West pretty much perfectly.
So, finally, this is what I believe the Pope was saying, “Steer clear of Marxism, and act morally as capitalists.”
And I’ve got no problem with that.
(That must be a load off his mind.)