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Pope Francis And “Unbridled Capitalism”

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(Editor’s Note: John F. Kippley is the author of Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality and other books and articles. With his wife Sheila, he is a coauthor of Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach. The commentary below is reprinted with permission from his blog at All rights reserved.)

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I thought that the fuss about Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) had died out, but The Cincinnati Enquirer recently devoted a full-page story (January 7, 2014) headlined, “Papal shot at unbridled capitalism stirs debate.” Coming more than six weeks after the publication of the apostolic exhortation, the content of what the Pope said was no longer news, so the subject was political commentary.
One Catholic politician said, “I don’t dwell on what the Pope has to say about economics. I’m more mindful of what the Pope has to say about faith and morals.” He might be surprised to know that economics has to do with human behavior, not just numbers, and within the Catholic Church the subject started as a part of moral theology.
The subject of debate is what the Pope wrote about “unbridled capitalism.” Please note that the words “unbridled capitalism” do not appear in the document. Others seem to recognize that certain behaviors deserve that title, including behaviors criticized by the Pope, but the Pope does not use even the word “capitalism” in this document.
My father’s sense of justice was agitated by the unbridled capitalism that he had witnessed. John D. Rockefeller and a partner became wealthy in the produce business and then built an oil refinery during the Civil War. By the end of the war, he had bought out some of his partners, and by 1870 he formed Standard Oil. He would enter a geographic market, price his product below cost, drive the existing marketers out of business, and then raise the price and extend his growing monopoly.
That sort of abuse led to the formation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law of 1890, thus putting at least somewhat of a bridle on the previously ruthless and unbridled Rockefeller capitalism.
It is probably true that in the United States and in much of Western Europe, we no longer have the economics that can be called “unbridled capitalism.” But that doesn’t mean that economics is no longer part of moral theology or that our systems cannot be greatly improved for the betterment of those who are excluded from participating in the benefits of a prosperous economy.
The remaining Rockefellers remain at the top of the economic sphere, and Pope Francis is on solid ground when he writes about the growing separation of the very rich from the very poor. He rightly urges the wealthy and would-be wealthy to be less concerned about growing more wealthy and to be more concerned about the poor. He does not, however, address the issue of what the poor can do to help themselves.
As I have written before, one of the great impediments to participation in the benefits of a prosperous economy is fornication. In the United States, the single greatest source of new poverty is the household headed by a single mother with children. The American elite have tried to address this with condoms, the Pill, the Shot, and abortion, and the rate of illegitimacy has only proceeded to rise. The answer is and must be spiritual and moral.
It is time for the Church to affirm this over and over again until it finally sinks in, first within the social-justice agencies of the Church and then within the culture. But how can the local Church expect to have any influence on single young men and women, many of them unchurched, if it won’t even attempt to do what it can do among its own pew-sitters?
And what it can do, but largely refuses to do, is to require that engaged couples attend the right kind of NFP course, one that includes Catholic morality as well as ecological breastfeeding and the full sympto-thermal method.
What is needed is a new book on the subject of Catholic teaching on economics. It should place its foundation in Sacred Scripture and moral theology. Then it should place each of the social justice encyclicals and exhortations in its historical context. It should also include the centuries-old moral theology concerning breastfeeding and the needs and rights of babies as Fr. William Virtue, Ph.D., did in his masterful work, Mother and Infant: The Moral Theology of Embodied Self-Giving in Motherhood in Light of the Exemplar Couplet Mary and Jesus. It is my hunch that many folks, including Catholics, are quite unaware of both the content of this body of teaching and the social ills to which it has responded and continues to address.
In the meantime, I suggest that most of us will benefit by a careful reading of Evangelii Gaudium and also rereading Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae.

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