For those who view free markets as the source of global economic imbalances, Robert Sirico has a simple message: Capitalism should not be confused with unfettered consumption.
In the aftermath of the financial pandemic of 2008—which left the world economy in tatters and helped fuel the rise of critics such as economist Thomas Piketty—that missive has become a much tougher sell than it was during the boom years. Yet Sirico, a Roman Catholic priest and staunch defender of free markets, has remained undaunted in his mission, even as Pope Francis takes aim at the inequalities that have taken root under market economies.
As the Pope prepares for a whistle-stop tour through the Northeast that will have him addressing a portion of the 70 million U.S. Catholics, his recent remarks have stoked a new debate about the morality of free markets. Does capitalist excess constitute the "dung of the devil" or a "subtle dictatorship" that can't be reconciled with widespread global poverty and a struggling working class?
Sirico, however, told CNBC in an interview that free markets are wrongly conflated with the urge to splurge on goods, or idolizing material wealth. Capitalism, Sirico insisted, is far more than that.
"The economic question with regard to morality is a subset of a broader theological question: Is human freedom compatible with religious beliefs?" said Sirico, the head the Acton Institute, a right-leaning think tank that studies the nexus between religion and liberty.
Sirico expressed broad agreement with the Pope on those left behind, but at the same time said laissez-faire capitalism and entrepreneurship is still the best way to address the challenges of poverty and economic need.
"If you love the poor, it's not enough to have good intentions," he said. "You can wish the poor to have bread, but if you don't build bakeries and factories, the poor don't get it."