Last week Congressman Paul Ryan welcomed Pope Francis’reported criticism of capitalism as “triggering the exact dialogue we should be having.” So, let’s begin.
Unlike theologic abstractions that remain fixed irrespective of geography, the understanding of monetary issues is often colored and dependent on, even for a Pontiff, the economic and business life manifest in the particular location in which that observer was raised. The laissez-faire economic paradigm of Latin and South America witnessed by Francis was rooted in colonialism and later in a state/business alliance for the benefit of particular families, and remains worlds apart from the moral capitalism developed here in the U.S. under the unique influence of our Judeo-Christian ethos.
Whether under right wing dictators or socialist tyranny, established elites were the primary beneficiaries of wealth creation in the southern hemisphere. In contrast, America has produced an authentic free market with the primary societal benefit being the profusion of a robust middle class, across the board and spanning generations. More than just wealth, American capitalism has yielded unparalleled opportunity for virtually all, and the dignity that comes with it, because in our culture and Judeo-Christian outlook we see fair play and the hope that each becomes the best he can be as a civic goal. More than industry, factories, and vast land ownership in the hands of a few, America believes in entrepreneurship and upward mobility.
Those wanting to live off the labors of others will flock to socialist countries enacting redistribution of wealth. They will become dependents and proficient in the art of victimology. Those, however, seeking opportunity and the dignity that comes from personal responsibility and the human spiritual capital gained through sacrifice and risk will, as they should, come to America. They will become independent and strong.
Through safety nets and our personal, voluntary Judeo-Christian charitable projects, America has magnanimously protected those unable to legitimately take care of themselves. But our bragging rights do not come from how our citizens are monetarily leveled so that we appear “fair”, but in how much opportunity we give those wishing to personally endeavor and risk to make a better and more independent life for themselves and loved ones.
For us, “fairness” is not realized by penalizing and demonizing those who strive, accomplish and succeed or by holding back achievers because others won’t or cannot achieve.
Much is being made of what is called “the income gap between rich and poor”. However, so long as one’s income is sufficient to live a middle class life, it should not matter that others earn more or profit more from their investments and risk taking. Envy is a cardinal sin. What counts is a good job. More than any country, America’s open, free market system and business climate has historically churned out more middle class jobs than any socialist country.
Only now, during the Obama years, have we seen a dearth of well-paying jobs, a direct consequence of President Obama’s redistribution of wealth policies that always feed-off attacks on business and wealth creation. Indeed, the alliance between and grants from the Obama administration to business people who are its donors is giving capitalism a bad name, since so much coming out of the Obama administration is, in fact, the very type of crony capitalism (fascism) reminiscent of Latin/South American regimes. Much of today’s wide disparity and income gap from atop is due to the profiteering coming from the wealthy political Left preferred by Obama, talking socialist but living elitist.
An inspiring component of the Judeo-Christian ethos is its encouragement of those creative and ambitious forces within human yearning to excel in all areas of life, including the economic. The Talmud says: “It is man’s quest, and at times vanity, that has given us great buildings, roads, and monuments”. No man, so long as he is just and charitable, should feel stymied or guilty because he wishes to travel the highway others choose not to tread. Equality, according to the Bible, does not mean that we suppress our respectable drives and talents and settle for economic sameness and parity. Equality means that we are equal under the law, one and the same law for all, rich or poor.
While not believing in unbridled capitalism – none of us do—Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedictus seemed to evince a positive view of capitalism, as have many in the American Catholic community influenced by the Protestant work ethic planted in our American founding and the Old Testament’s admiration for work and risk as a spiritual undertaking. Our love is not only for the poor but equally those who have worked hard to build and succeed, who should not be viewed as sinners or morally deficient for so doing. They are performing as should those granted the gift of being created in the image of God.
Many religious leaders concur that man’s life on this earth is not simply a holding pattern awaiting an afterlife where the effects of salvation will kick in. It is equally his singular moment in eternity wherein man is called upon in this world to accomplish and produce. The byproducts of his labor are not only beneficial to him but most often to society whose general welfare is enhanced by the material outpourings of his mind, his hands, his ingenuity and sweat.
Mankind’s original sin was not in his fall from perfection, but in the mischievousness that comes when everything is handed to him. God never intended man to be perfect and so we are not asked to recreate some type of economic “utopia” as a substitute for the Garden of Eden. Adam’s sin was he decided not to struggle, and mankind continues that error when relying on others, in the name of justice and fairness, to supply all his needs as if in a perpetual Eden.
Due to the on-going lack of a middle class in Latin America and the continued immersion there in poverty by so many, fifty years ago some Catholic orders opted for liberation theology, begun by Bishop Oscar Romero, which propounded a concept called “structural sin” claiming that sin resides in “unjust social and economic structures” . Using the religious language of sin it, like Marxism, attributes poverty to a willful oppression by those who have over those who don’t have. It rests on an earlier theory called “preferential option for the poor”, that all theology must be focused on solidarity with the poor.
No doubt, some hearken back to the “duality” paradigm of Plato categorizing things as either good or bad, with wealth being considered bad and thus men should not retain for themselves not one penny beyond what is needed for bare subsistence. Everything should be given away. But modern life with all its abundance and medicine could never have happened if men were left with nothing for investment in the ventures that have made our modern life possible. And what satisfactory end has liberation theology availed?
Money and wealth are not intrinsically evil, rather how one uses it is decisive. In and of itself “having” is not sinful or selfish. It is a noble and good thing to help the poor. But, it is quite different to consign them to virtual dependency by erecting a welfare state that quashes human initiative and the spirit of responsibility, though welfare-statism may make some feel good about themselves and their politics.
Pope Francis is a man endowed with a charisma of love, a love that should be extended to all, including the financially successful and those satisfied with their accomplishments. I urge Pope Francis to come see America as did Mikael Gorbachev back in the 80s. While flying with President Reagan over unending rows of comfortable homes and nice neighborhoods, Gorbachev asked if they belonged to the ruling class. Reagan answered: “No, this is America’s middle class”. Gorbachev was stunned and realized that what he had read and theorized about capitalism and free markets fell short regarding the blessings that American style capitalism had actually wrought. Pope Francis, come to America: Seeing is believing.