We see these refugees, these poor people who are escaping from war, escaping from hunger, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. But underlying that is the cause, and the cause is a socio-economic system that is bad, unjust, because within an economic system, within everything, within the world, speaking of the ecological problem, within the socio-economic society, in politics, the person always has to be the center. And today’s dominant economic system has removed the person from the center, and at the center is the god of money. It’s the fashionable god today. I mean, there are statistics. I don’t remember very well, but — this is not exact and I could be making a mistake— 17% of the population has 80% of the wealth.
As usual, reading the whole interview gives a substantially different — at least mitigated — impression. For one thing, the reader can observe very clearly the importance of the fact that these statements often come out of interviews. Pope Francis is fielding questions, trying to communicate with the interviewer, answering questions in the interviewer’s terms.
More important, though, he does touch on other points that don’t quite fit with the modern socialism. “Many things are mixed together,” he says. “We shouldn’t be simplistic about it.” And as much as he’s criticizing wealthy nations, he’s not ignoring the role of European culture in history and today:
I wouldn’t throw this in Europe’s face so much today. It must be recognized that Europe has an exceptional culture. Truly, there are centuries of culture, right? And this also gives intellectual well-being, and I, in every case, what I would say about Europe is their ability to regain leadership in the concert of nations. That is, it returns to being the Europe that marks paths, because it has the culture to do it.
He also stresses that forgetting its Christian roots is a big part of the West’s problem, as is our turning away from our role as parents, creating voids for migrants to fill by not filling out our societies with our own children. All of these points come right up to the edge of a conclusion that — if I may state my opinion humbly — Pope Francis’s own experiences and background have left him apt to miss.
He’s correct that “today’s dominant economic system has removed the person from the center,” replacing him or her with money. However, it isn’t the capitalism of our society that begets this switch; it’s the socialism.
Money is just a measure of the things that individual humans value. Yes, in too many people, it exposes their greed, but the fundamental principle of capitalism is that an economic system should be built on the decisions of individuals, without distortions created by challenges in translating one type of good for another.
Imagine a man who can build houses and who values, above all, the ability to feed his family and, then, those who are starving around him. His carpentry has a certain amount of value to a contractor, and the food has a certain cost based on the ability of other people to develop and deliver it while securing the things that they value. Having an intermediary measurement of value that can be exchanged for goods and services universally throughout the society puts the value that he places on feeding people, and of his work as a carpenter, in relation to everything else that other people value, without the complexities (i.e., the wasted effort) of finding a chain of actual goods from the carpenter to the farmer or the butcher.
Broadened to terms of capitalism, the flow of privately owned money and goods also removes the inefficiencies of having government determine the relative value of everything. It is under that system — the government-centric one — that each person loses his or her humanity and becomes a statistic to be considered for the good of the whole. One might argue that this makes a god of government, not of money, but in practice the dynamic is something more like a soulless imitation of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Government sets the value of things and continues to use money as the measurement and means of transfer; the control of money remains the central fixation.
The thing with capitalism is that it works. It actually shows us what people value, and what people value is often base and destructive. But you don’t change that by making it more difficult for them to express their values — by taking away their freedom and driving them underground.
In this very interview, Pope Francis clearly has a sense of this reality when talking about appropriate attire for First Communion, saying in essence that one has to meet children and young adults where they are. Although we’re rightly more forgiving of the young when they err (and rightly more inclined just to tell them what to do), this principle applies to all ages. People spend their money on things that they value. If those things are not healthy, physically or spiritually, then we respect their humanity by seeking ways to make them see and understand the error. Christians, especially, should understand that the individual’s choices are more important than the incidental things they’re choosing.
An economic system cannot claim to put people at its center unless it treats them as autonomous, free individuals. When the government (of whatever form) attempts to force people to value something — to treat something reverently, so to speak — then that thing has become the center, whether it’s money or the environment or anything else that people try to force each other to respect through the government.
In practice, such ideas get complex; freedom to value things doesn’t mean a right to access them, and we can’t make other people complicit in our bad decisions in the name of freedom. From here, the conversation has to move on to the notions of subsidiarity, pluralism, and a federalist representative democracy.
If the starting point is the individual person, though, then ability of the individual person to make decisions, visible through their allocation of money, can’t be seen as the root of cause of the world’s problems.