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Pope as pastor or business basher?

When Pope Francis touches down on U.S. soil, he is in some ways, going into the belly of the beast. The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics has raised eyebrows, and ire, in corporate America with comments, speeches and encyclicals denouncing the impact that markets, capitalism and technology have on the world's poor.

Francis, the first Jesuit pope, gives speeches that often make for eye-catching headlines, but his message is not always understood, said John Gehring, Catholic program director for the advocacy group Faith in Public Life and author of the book "The Francis Effect."

Pope Francis
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Pope Francis

"Pope Francis is not anti-market, but he reminds us a profit-first mindset creates a throwaway culture," said Gehring. "He is a Catholic, not a Marxist. Catholic social teaching emphasizes the markets must serve the common good."

Read MoreThe pope doesn't care about capitalism

The principles of Roman Catholic social teaching came together formally in the 19th century when Pope Leo XIII wrote of the importance of paying workers a living wage. It is a view embraced by U.S. Catholic bishops and Francis' predecessors, including Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.

With Francis' message clearly one aimed at reorienting the church's mission as serving the poor, he has been frank, and, to some, unjustly critical of a global economy he sees as disregarding the vulnerable.

Francis has called consumerism a "great danger" and has said there is little evidence of the benefits of trickle-down economics to those at the lowest rung on the economic ladder. In a speech in Bolivia, the Argentina-born pope quoted Basil of Caesarea calling the unfettered pursuit of money "the dung of the devil."

More recently, in second his papal encyclical "Laudato Si" ("Be Praised"), he criticized the harm the economy is having on the environment, which he has described one of God's gifts the faithful are called to protect.

"Here too, it should always be kept in mind that environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces," he wrote.

For some, it might be easy to put Francis in the anti-business box but to do so would be wrong, said the Rev. Manuel Dorantes S.T.L., a Vatican spokesman based in Chicago.

"He is not anti-capitalist, but it seems that we live in a society where you can't questions capitalism, because if you do then you're excluded and you're a socialist," said Dorantes.

"The Holy Father believes in the goodness of capitalism," he continued. "There are so many people who have received employment through the benefits of capitalism. The question is why doesn't that capitalism and that free market really benefit all the people who participate within that market?"

Francis has called business a "noble vocation," while urging those in positions of power to find ways to improve the common good by making more goods accessible to more people. He has spoken of the dignity of work and talked of the dangers of having a teenage population not experienced or engaged in work because of a lack of opportunity.

He sees welfare as a temporary, not permanent, solution to poverty and has criticized job cuts, which leave more people at the margins. And while he has praised technology for delivering better health care, communications and education to the poor, he has also pointed out it can lead to a loss of jobs for some, widening the income gap.

Papal watchers maintain the pope is aware of the criticism that has been lodged against him in the U.S. and will likely use the occasion of this visit not to blast the free market system but to remind those in positions of power to use that influence to lift the least in the society, not just profits.

"He will call on the U.S. to be its best self," said Kathleen Cummings, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. "He will not scold the U.S., but remind us that to those that much is given, much is expected."

When the pope participates in a vesper service in New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral on Thursday, some big names in business will be in attendance, including Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and First Data CEO Frank Bisignano.

Bisignano, who is a trustee of St. Patrick's, told CNBC he does not think he, as a businessman, and the pope are in conflict.

"He's the pope right?" he said. "He is like many leaders trying to get a lot of things done. He's a change agent."

"He grew up in a difficult place, and was molded by those experiences," Bisignano continued. "He just wants to make the world a better place."

The pope lands outside Washington on Tuesday afternoon. On Thursday, he will become the first pope to address Congress, a body that counts 30 percent of its members as Catholics. Ahead of the address, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a convert to Catholicism, and Jim Nicholson, a former ambassador to the Vatican, respectfully disagreed with the the pontiff's assessment of the global economic system as having the mentality of "profit at any price with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature."


In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, the two said this is not the case in the United States. They said while the U.S. has its flaws, its generosity, openness to immigrants and embrace of a free market system has lifted millions from poverty.

There is some speculation members on both parties will try to co-opt parts of Francis' message to burnish their own, though Notre Dame's Cummings does not expect the pope to hold much sway in the voting booth.

"Americans interpret their religion in a way that has more to do with U.S. politics than through the gospel," she said. In other words, while Francis may have changed some minds about the direction of the church, he's unlikely to change their minds when it comes to voting their pocketbooks or their social conscience.