(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement, most evaluations of his pontificate prominently featured the adjective “conservative.” Yet, this same pope, as well as his predecessors, had voiced deep reservations about modern capitalism. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Benedict reiterated the Church’s long-standing support for unions, for a robust social welfare state, and for environmental action to stem global climate change. Still, these “progressive” stances were often outweighed in the public’s eye by Benedict’s undoubted, and often more visible, commitment to baroque liturgies, traditional moral norms, and a vision of the Church that struck many as defensive and closing in on itself. The election of Pope Francis and his first 100 days in office have caused everyone from full-time Vaticanologists to the average Catholic in the pew to recognize a shift, a change of emphasis and style, and a laser-like focus on the poor from the new pope. 

The first decision a new pope makes is to choose a name, and in choosing to be called Francis, the new pope indicated that he wished to associate himself with the saint who is most identified with caring for the poor. In the days and weeks that followed, Pope Francis made it clear that a concern for the poor would be at the center of his papacy. He said he wanted “a Church that is poor and for the poor.” Upon first visiting the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis reportedly commented that “three hundred people could live here,” and indicated he would not be among them, choosing to reside in a two-room suite in a nearby hotel used by visitors to the Vatican. He visited a soup kitchen where he denounced “savage capitalism.” His ecclesiastical vestments are modest and he still wears the worn black shoes he brought with him from Buenos Aires.

In May, in what would normally be a routine meeting to receive new ambassadors, Pope Francis used the occasion to speak about the world economic situation. He said:

The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have started a throw-away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules.

Needless to say, there are not many U.S. Catholic bishops who speak so forcefully in denouncing the evils of the modern market economy. Key to understanding Pope Francis and his views on the economy is the fact he is not a U.S. bishop, nor a European, though he was born to Italian parents. He is the first pontiff from the global South. And while the theological content of what he says is in broad continuity with his predecessors, it is the way he speaks bluntly about the actual economy, not just some theoretical understanding of economics, that stands out as unique. “His language is striking—showing a very clear moral evaluation of the actual system we live in,” says Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of theology at St. John’s University in New York. “Referring to the ‘slave-labor’ in Bangladesh, the ‘cult of money,’ the ‘facelessness’ of economic systems, the global economic system is not abstract or theoretical. Pope Francis is trying to wake us up from complacency about how we look at the economy and what we ignore.”

Pope Francis’ thoughts on the economy did not come to him newly formed upon his election in the Sistine Chapel in March. In 2001 in Argentina, during the same year he was named a cardinal, Bergoglio confronted the nation’s sovereign debt crisis. Whatever the theory of international finance, he saw firsthand how market imperatives can harm the poor. My colleague at the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen, traveled to Buenos Aires after the papal election. An Argentine journalist took him to a slum where he said Bergoglio used to visit to “fill his lungs.” The Argentine challenged Allen to go up to anyone on the street and ask if they knew Bergoglio. Allen approached a middle-aged woman who not only knew him but also ran into her house to produce two pictures of her with the archbishop.

“Pope Francis has highlighted the chasm between our rhetoric and reality,” Clark says. “Human rights agreements are the global moral framework, the basis of our cross-cultural and international ethics; and yet, around the world money seems to be the only thing with rights. This is a powerful critique of the concrete reality, which does not match up to our rhetoric.”

The new pope’s critique of the current world economy has left conservative Catholic commentators in something of a bind. For years, they have denounced “cafeteria Catholics” on the left, those who differ with the Church on issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion rights. Now, it is these conservatives who need to either change their public policy positions or stand in the cafeteria line. “Before, Catholic economic conservatives like George Weigel and Robert Sirico could pretend that Vatican apparatchiks were smuggling traditional anti-capitalist language into papal pronouncements,” says Trinity College’s Mark Silk, who serves on the editorial board of Religion & Politics. “But no one can doubt that this language comes straight from Pope Francis’ heart. That’s what’s freaking the conservatives out.”

To be clear, Weigel, Sirico and other Catholic conservatives have been pretending for some time. When Benedict issued Caritas in Veritate in 2009, Weigel famously suggested reading the text with red and gold pens, excising those parts he attributed to the Vatican bureaucracy and with which he and other Catholic neo-cons objected. And, Father Sirico’s latest book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, stands in opposition to more than 100 years of papal social teaching in its championing of laissez-faire policies.

Pope Benedict was not shy about voicing his concerns about the world economy. In his last World Day of Peace message, issued on January 1 of this year, Pope Benedict condemned “a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism,” which he lumped together with terrorism and international crime as threats to world peace. Pope Francis is building on what was said by his predecessors going all the way back to Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century. What is different about Francis is not the content of the teaching, but the directness of his style.

“This is nothing new, of course, but two things make Francis better able to be heard than his predecessors,” says Fordham University Theology Professor Charles Camosy. “First, his is a new international voice. What he has said about economic justice—which was his focus right out of the gate—cannot be ignored in favor of what many suspect are his ‘true’ priorities. Second, we cannot overestimate the street cred which comes from living out a preferential option for the poor via an authentically simple lifestyle. Far more than by words or arguments, people are convinced by an encounter with a person. Jesus himself didn’t come as a philosophical proposition to be affirmed or denied, but as a person to be known and loved. Francis is reminding us all that the Gospel is preached best by living a life well lived.”

Those trying to look for the sources of the pope’s views should also consult the document issued by the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM) at their fifth general conference, held at Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007. Cardinal Bergoglio ws one of the principal drafters of the text. Ever since CELAM first general conference in Rio de Janiero in 1955, but especially since their 1968 meeting at Medellin, the bishops of Latin America have wrestled with a central question: What does it mean to exercise a preferential option for the poor?

Some Latin American theologians adopted “liberation theology,” a term generally used to cover theologies that avail themselves of Marxist analysis in assessing socio-cultural situations. The Vatican under Pope John Paul II took a hardline against any theology with even a hint of Marxist analysis and, more deeply, any approach that had a faulty theological anthropology or understanding of the human person—usually those that reduced ideas of salvation to economic justice in this life, or that relied on an overly deterministic view of human history. In fact, some liberation theologians never went down the Marxist path, nor did they fall afoul of Rome for these other reasons. More importantly, the fact that some bishops took a stance against some varieties of liberation theology did not mean they were suddenly baptized into the school of Austrian economics we associate with Hayek and von Mises.

Writing online recently for the National Review, Samuel Gregg, of the libertarian-leaning Acton Institute, noted that the pope had no real affinity with liberation theology. True enough. Gregg pointed his readers to the Aparecida text which, if they read it, they “would soon discover how little it says about liberation theology, and how much it speaks about Jesus Christ.” Gregg allowed that Francis is no fan of contemporary capitalism—“plainly he’s not.” But, what he seemed not to grasp was how what the Aparecida text said about Jesus Christ led the bishops of Latin America to venture into some tough pronouncements against the neo-liberal economics of the kind we associate with Hayek and von Mises, and which Gregg champions, with their ideological preference for freedom over solidarity, market mechanisms over government interventions, and globalization over traditional, local economies.

The Aparecida text condemns the “greed of the market” (#50), it warns against individual rights that are not subject to the demands of solidarity (#47), and contrasts the moral necessity for governments and societies to pursue the common good with the goals of financial institutions and transnational companies (#66). In one paragraph, you can see how the Church’s concern for the “truly human,” as revealed by Christ, is set in stark contrast with the neo-liberal vision:

When science and technology are placed solely at the service of the market and profitability and what is functional are the sole criterion of effectiveness, they create a new vision of reality. Thus, through the use of the mass media, an esthetic sense, a vision of happiness, a perception of relationship and even a language have been making inroads, and the aim is that it be imposed as an authentic culture. The result is the destruction of what is truly human in the processes of cultural construction that emerge from personal and collective exchange. (#45)

So, while it is true that Papa Francesco does not subscribe to certain varieties of liberation theology, he is also not likely to be found at a Tea Party rally, reading Ayn Rand, or otherwise evidencing much sympathy for the anti-government, pro-capitalist positions common among Catholic conservatives in the U.S..

In short, while conservative Catholics might have been able to parse traditional Catholic social teaching in ways that suited their defense of modern capitalism and globalization, Pope Francis’ words are so direct, so forceful, so precise, they do not invite parsing. “The tradition has long been suspicious of the kind of economics proposed by the Acton Institute,” Camosy says. “For Catholics who are thinking with the Church, growing wealth always takes a back seat to justice—in particular, justice for the most vulnerable. Period.” That period has become, under Francis, an exclamation mark.

Michael Sean Winters is a regular contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and The Tablet (London). He serves on the editorial advisory board of Religion & Politics.