Agreeing with Pope Francis
The exhortation looks very different read through the lens of Argentine experience.

Pope Francis



“No one has ever seen God,” St. John writes in his first Letter, “but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12). And Jesus instructed, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

An exhortation is not so much a teaching document laying out a careful argument — that is the task for an encyclical. Rather, it is more like a sermon, a somewhat informal occasion for the pope to set out his vision as a pastor, and to present it as an invitation to deeply felt piety and devotion. Pope Francis excels at such personal speech.

In the future, Francis will unfold his fuller arguments about the political economy that best helps the poor to move out of poverty. I can only imagine that consultations on the subject have already begun.

I hope the pope’s aides will begin with the experience-impelled conclusion, a bit reluctantly advanced, in the well-reasoned pathway of paragraph 42 of John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus:

Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

To this John Paul II answered, in effect, “Yes and no.” He went on:

The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy.” But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.

Although economic growth falls far short of being the only goal of free societies, its blessings in terms of education, medical improvements, the prospering of freedom of conscience, and the private financing of civic life and multiple philanthropies are not inessential to the common good.

Further, it is not market systems alone that produce upward mobility, economic progress for all, and wide economic opportunity. Argentina has always had a market economy. So, too, have almost all the peoples in human history. Jerusalem in the biblical period cherished private property (“Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”), and it lived by a vital market (as the commercial interface of three continents). But for the 1,800 years after Christ, none of the world’s markets — nor the aggregate thereof — produced much economic development. The world’s economies remained relatively static, as they faced a merciless cycle of “fat” years followed by “lean” ones. Before the rise of capitalism, traditional market systems experienced famines and massive outbreaks of deadly diseases in nearly every generation.

Pope John Paul II came to see this historical reality. His insights are still in the treasury of Catholic social teaching, and naturally they will come to the attention of Pope Francis, who devotes a whole section of Evangelii Gaudium to the theme “Reality is more powerful than ideas.”

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Finally, I would like to offer a bet: More human beings by far will move out of poverty by the methods of democracy and capitalism than by any other means.

The empirical evidence from the swift upward thrust of the war-leveled economies of 1946–48 — those of Japan and Germany, but also those of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, which turned to democracy and one form or another of capitalism — is overwhelming. But so also is the evidence from most of us in the United States, whose grandparents were “the wretched refuse” of the earth, yet now in a short time their families are counted among the most affluent people of the world. How was that possible? Through what system was that done, and what are its imitable secrets?

Those who wish to be practical and successful in breaking the remaining chains of poverty in the world might learn from what has worked until now, right before our eyes.

Michael Novak’s most recent book is his memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.


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