On capitalism and virtue

Fresh minted Vatican coins

Contrary to some media reports, Pope Francis knows that the answer to problems with the free market isn't government control, writes America's Cardinal Timothy Dolan in The Wall Street Journal.

Pope Francis met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other UN officials at the Vatican on May 9. From media reports, one might think that the only thing on the Pope's mind was government redistribution of property, as if he were denouncing capitalism and endorsing some form of socialism.

This is unfortunate, because it overlooks the principal focus of Pope Francis' economic teaching—that economic and social activity must be based on the virtues of compassion and generosity.

The Church believes that prosperity and earthly blessings can be a good thing, gifts from God for our well-being and the common good. It is part of human nature to work and produce, and everyone has the natural right to economic initiative and to enjoy the fruits of their labours. But abundance is for the benefit of all people.

The spread of the free market has undoubtedly led to a tremendous increase in overall wealth and well-being around the world. Yet Pope Francis is certainly correct that 'an important part of humanity does not share in the benefits of progress.'

Far too many people live in poverty and have few opportunities to achieve prosperity. And so the Pope, and many others, are deeply concerned about the development of a 'throwaway culture,' an 'economy of exclusion' and a 'culture of death' that corrode human dignity and marginalise the poor.

It is in this context that the Holy Father's earlier criticism of 'trickle-down economics' can be properly understood. One does not have to subscribe uncritically to the notion that 'a rising tide lifts all boats' to acknowledge that all people, including the poor, benefit from a general increase in the overall wealth of society.

But the Church certainly disapproves of any system of unregulated economic amorality, which leaves people at the mercy of impersonal market forces, where they have no choice but to sink, swim or be left with the scraps that fall from the table.

That kind of environment produces the evils of greed, envy, fraud, misuse of riches, gross luxury and exploitation of the poor and the labourer. 

The Church has long taught that the value of any economic system rests on the personal virtue of the individuals who take part in it, and on the morality of their day-to-day decisions. Business can be a noble vocation, so long as those engaged in it also serve the common good, acting with a sense of generosity in addition to self-interest.

The great Renaissance humanist Erasmus once said, 'He does not sail badly who steers a middle course.' This advice would be well worth keeping in mind.

Read full article: The Pope's case for virtuous capitalism (The Wall Street Journal)

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