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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."
Sirico is part of a small but vocal cadre of religious figures whose public work promote the virtues of free markets. He, along with Jewish Rabbi Aryeh Spero, have argued American capitalism is in fact moored in Judeo-Christian tradition and beliefs.
However, the Pope's recent remarks have become a force multiplier for critics of capitalism, many of which promote the belief that governments must be more active in addressing social imbalances. Among those are Piketty, whose 700-page tome "Capital in the 21st Century" quickly became a rallying cry for those who argue in favor of a new economic order, and selling nearly 2 million copies in the process.
For his part, Sirico believes that Pope Francis' arguments have been misconstrued—even as he rejects arguments that boost the idea of economic redistribution.
"The same way that [former Pope] John Paul highlighted the anthropological errors of socialism, the [current] pope is underscoring the anthropological errors of capitalism," Sirico told CNBC. "The most critical statement he made is about the idolatry of money," he said, rather than a wholesale rejection of the free markets.
"Really the economic stuff is less central to the church's self-concept of life, marriage and morality," he added. "Those are the more fundamental question on the basis of his authority."
Yet the University of Southern California graduate—who himself once dabbled in "left-wing movements" before attending seminary and immersing himself in capitalist dogma—said that the standard of life for everyone has risen over the last two centuries.
"In the last 200 years it's been clear that the poor have done better where there is less taxation and more wealth," Sirico said, adding that the true moral quandary was "not equality, it's envy. I'm not envious of Bill Gates if he earned his wealth under the rule of law."
The conflict, he argued, was between two disparate alternatives that allocate wealth and opportunity differently, with radically different outcomes. With statism and capitalism "we have two social paradigms that we have to choose between. If we choose the first, we're going to leave a lot of people behind."
Still, recent statistics frequently point to stagnation and decline at the lower end of the economic spectrum amid a simultaneous accumulation of wealth in the upper strata. Sirico argued those conditions cannot be addressed by government or charity.
"Empirically, what we know is that the poor have risen out of poverty...that's not the result of charity," or humanitarian aid, he said.
Rather, it's the result "of the market globalizing, and having access to goods and services," Sirico said. "That's not very romantic, and we need charity. But charity is not the normative way people rise out of poverty, business is."