The pope doesn't care about capitalism

It seems everyone from Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh to leftist Bolivian president Evo Morales gets riled up about what Pope Francis thinks of capitalism. If I had a dollar for every person that asked me about the pope's views on capitalism, I'd have a heck of a lot capital.

Recently, an interviewer asked Trump what he would do if he met the pope and, hypothetically, the pope said something about capitalism being toxic and corrupt. Trump replied that he'd tell the pope, "ISIS wants to get you." Explaining the weird response, Trump said, "the pope—I hope—can only be scared by God. But the truth is, if you look at what's going on, they better hope that capitalism works. Because it's the only thing we have right now."

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, June 17, 2015.
Max Rossi | Reuters
Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, June 17, 2015.

The truth is, the pope, who will be visiting the U.S., with a stop in New York, later in September, doesn't seem to have much interest in capitalism. For all the hoopla, he, himself, rarely uses the word. He talks about greed, poverty, inequality, and the environment, but none of his important papal writings ever mention the word capitalism. In contrast, John Paul II discussed it repeatedly. Back then, in a world struggling with the end of Communism, the word actually had some meaning. Today, "capitalism" means so many different things to so many different people that it has practically lost its meaning. If it means a private-sector economy, it exists (almost) everywhere. If it means an economy with no rules or regulation except property rights, it exists nowhere. If "capitalism" means the U.S. economy as it is, then I'm confident no one of any partisan or religious persuasion is in favor it. (Just turn on the TV!) It is probably wise that the pope avoids the word.

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Perhaps Pope Francis has little interest because he believes that "realities are more important than ideas." The pope is not a businessman, economist, or a politician. The practical questions he deals with are not those of writing financial regulations, evaluating policies, selling products, or lowering costs in distribution chains. The pope is a spiritual and moral guide, and – surprise, surprise! – the practical realities that concern him are the questions of how to be just and loving toward God and neighbor. These are the practical questions we all face of how to live lives of meaning.

As an academic economist, perhaps I should take offense that the pope finds ideas and economics unimportant, but as a Catholic, Christian, and a human being, I have to appreciate it. It's as if the pope is inviting us not to just spend all our time in the shallow water, but wade into these deeper practical realities that the pope wants to guide our economic and decision-making. When it comes to the details of economic policy or business that all nations face, the Pope is not telling us the answers; he's telling us the questions.

As opposed to economics, here are three practical yet deeply spiritual issues that do concern Pope Francis and where he is quite clear about his stance.

1. It's about the right attitude toward wealth. The pope's chief "microeconomic" concern is whether people have the proper attitude toward wealth, money, materials goods and comfort. Pope Francis insists that all of these are merely means to an end. We consume to live, not live to consume. Money is a good servant but a poor master. You can't serve both God and money.

On the "macroeconomic" side, the corollary is that the economy is meant to serve people, and not the other way around. That means that the end goal of our economic policies, institutions, and culture cannot be ideologies, special interests, or quarterly profit goals, or GDP growth statistics but whether these policies, institutions, and culture lead to good and just outcomes for people.

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2. It's important to care for the poor. It should be no surprise that a Christian leader should have a special concern for the poor. Here, Pope Francis has a two-fold concern. First, he has a genuine love for the poor, the many struggles they face, and their material needs. Second, however, the pope realizes that care for the poor is intimately linked with love of God. "If we can't love our brother, whom we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?" Indeed, according to Christianity, it is often in caring for these "least" (the poor, the immigrant, the unborn) that we encounter God, sometimes unwittingly.

Following suit, the pope also sees a "macroeconomic" side to addressing poverty. It is an urgent problem that requires addressing the root causes of poverty, not merely the symptoms. The pope again insists that we need to be willing to orient policies, institutions, and cultures to addressing the urgency of the problem at its roots.

3. People should consume to live, not live to consume. In a recent letter sent to all the bishops, the pope addresses the way we can be good stewards of all the gifts of God's creation, but especially the earth itself. He insists that respecting creation is just not only to God but also to other people including the poor, the developing world, and future generations. On the micro-side, he promotes simple lifestyle decisions – again, no surprise from a man who chose the name of St. Francis. On the macro side, he deplores a "throwaway culture," a side effect of living to consume, rather than consuming to live. He also deplores the failure of governments and institutions to protect the environment, which he sees as an idolatry of the market.

Pope Francis doesn't care much about business and economics, but do I think he should? The economist in me appreciates a division of labor with the pope focusing on what he does best and urging businessmen and politicians to perform their own roles (but better). The professor in me feels the pope could benefit from learning some economics. First, it would clarify some places where the pope and economists agree. We do evaluate policies based on their impact on people, for example, and we agree that the environment is one place where unregulated markets lead to problems. Second, economists and businessmen have deep insights into many of these serious concerns. For example, finance, international trade, multinational firms, and especially economic growth often draw skepticism from the pope. Despite all their problems, however, sound research shows that they are influential in attacking poverty at its roots.

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In the end, finance and trade are not cure-alls, of course and the pope's concerns remain. Donald Trump could well teach Pope Francis a great deal about business, but we could all learn a great deal about the deeper things in life from Pope Francis.

Commentary by Joseph Kaboski, the David F. and Erin M. Seng Foundation professor of economics, University of Notre Dame. He is also president of the Catholic Research Economists Discussion Organization (CREDO) , an international professional society of Catholic research economists and a consultant with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.