The Roman Catholic Church has been critical of capitalism since before “capitalism” was a word.
This is old news. I learned it as a college undergraduate in the 1950s when I was studying economic history.
The criticism of Catholic social teaching back then was not that it was radical or Marxist. It was that it was out-of-date.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that you should put the common good above your personal self-interest. Supporters of the free market claim that if people are free to pursue their own interests, the law of supply and demand will produce a result that is best for everyone.
The medieval Catholic philosophers taught that people in business should charge no more than a “just price”—that is, enough to cover their expenses and provide a profit sufficient to live on. Supporters of the free market claim that if prices are allowed to rise and fall, the law of supply and demand will direct production to where it is most needed.
The Roman Catholic Church historically has opposed “usury”—the charging of excessive interest rates. Supporters of the free market say that if you limit the return on investment, you will stifle economic growth.
Catholic teachings do not call for the abolition of capitalism. They say capitalism or any other economic system should operate within a Christian moral framework.
The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published during the papacy of John Paul II, affirms the right of private property and warns against the danger of excessive governmental power. It condemns totalitarianism.
It proclaims the principle of “subsidiarity”—that decisions about public policy should be made on the lowest feasible level. Other things being equal, voluntary associations are better than government, local government is better than national government.
On the other hand, it affirms the right of individuals to access to employment and to a just wage. The Catechism calls on governments to reduce economic inequality and condemns “sinful inequality”. It says society should be organized on the principle of “solidarity” among different social classes, nations and other groups.
Within these general principles, there is a room for a wide range of opinion on political and economic philosophy. What the church condemns is the capitalist ethic—the principle that there is no such thing as the common good, but only individuals and their right to pursue their self-interest.
I think it is just to say that historic Catholic philosophy arose in a static society and does not sufficiently recognize the benefits of a dynamic and growing society. But Pope Francis and his predecessors are right to point out that growth is not enough unless it benefits humanity as a whole and not just a select few.
And it may be that, because of exhaustion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources, the era of economic growth may be winding down. This would make the older philosophies more relevant than the ones that assume economic growth can go on forever.
In D.C., Pope weighs in on climate, poverty, immigration to start U.S. tour by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Michelle Boorstein and Steve Hendrix for The Washington Post.
Top Signs Pope Francis Is an Honest Conservative by Juan Cole for Informed Comment.
The Pope and the Market by William D. Nordhaus for The New York Review of Books. A critique of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change from a free-market perspective.
Why Do We Care Whose Side the Pope Is On? by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.
Why the Catholic Church Is So Liberal on Labor by Whet Moser for Chicago magazine [added 10/1/2015]
It’s Almost as if the Pope Is Catholic by Ian Welsh. [added 9/26/2015]