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The Pope's Case for Virtuous Capitalism

The Wall Street Journal. logoThe Wall Street Journal. 2014-05-22 Cardinal Timothy Dolan
Pope Francis (L) meets UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (R) and members of UN System Chief Executives Board for the biannual meeting on strategic coordination in the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. © Provided by The Wall Street Journal. Pope Francis (L) meets UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (R) and members of UN System Chief Executives Board for the biannual meeting on strategic coordination in the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City.

Pope Francis met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other U.N. 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 labors. 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 marginalize 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 laborer. Fortunately, few people subscribe to an inhumane philosophy of radical economic individualism, and even fewer consider the "Wolf of Wall Street" to be a good role model.

It's also worth noting that what many people around the world experience as "capitalism" isn't recognizable to Americans. For many in developing or newly industrialized countries, what passes as capitalism is an exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy. Americans must remember that the holy father is speaking to this world-wide audience.

Yet the answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control. The church has consistently rejected coercive systems of socialism and collectivism, because they violate inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property. When properly regulated, a free market can certainly foster greater productivity and prosperity. But, as the pope continually emphasizes, the essential element is genuine human virtue.

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.

In speaking to the U.N. leaders, Pope Francis recalled the story of Zacchaeus, in which Jesus inspires the repentant tax collector to make a radical decision to put his economic wealth at the service of others. This reminds us that a spirit of sharing and solidarity with others, in the words of Francis, "should be at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity."

In other words, virtuous people, acting justly, compassionately and honestly, are the foundation of good economic or business activity that can produce prosperity for all, and not just for a few.

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. By maintaining a sound middle course on economic issues, Pope Francis is able to remind us that free economic activity should indeed be pursued, but the human dignity of our needy brothers and sisters must always be at the center of our attention.

As Pope Francis reminds us, individual generosity, private economic development, community and family initiatives, and public policies of "legitimate redistribution of economic benefits" all have a role in enhancing economic opportunities, and in alleviating and eliminating poverty. A just economic order relies on both material wealth and on people's openness to the transformation of their hearts in love and solidarity. That is the path to the greatest kind of prosperity for all.

Cardinal Dolan is the archbishop of New York.

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