Early Christianity was essentially a church of and for the poor and the oppressed. However, it did not seek to rouse them against the rich and the oppressor. Instead, it offered solace by the promise of a life after death, a life of infinitely greater worth, greater reward for the righteous, and greater punishment for the unrepentant sinner than anything the brief passage of earthly existence might bring. In life after death, the first will become the last and the last the first. The rich will find it harder to enter Paradise than the camel to pass through the eye of the needle. Thus will divine justice be done. In this vale of sorrow, charity was due to the suffering poor and the sick, but revolution was not the message of religion. St Peter's Church was ultimately concerned only with the spiritual and not, or hardly at all, with the temporal.
From antiquity and the Renaissance, the Church was progressively becoming more and more concerned with the material world. It developed ambitions of becoming a great power in its own right and through the influence of the religious hierarchy of other great powers on reigning dynasties like the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs, the Stuarts, some Polish kings, and many German princely houses. The ultimate objective might have been the greater glory of God, but the instruments were thoroughly down-to-earth, and what present-day language would call conservative.
This trajectory was largely broken by the Reformation. The Papacy of the Counter-Reformation has turned back to its spiritual vocation. Its political involvement was confined to defending the primacy, such as it was, of the Roman Catholic over the reformed churches.
The first openly declared step towards a role of judge and would-be director of the social order was the encyclical of May 15, 1891 of Leo XIII remembered as the Rerum Novarum.1 Forty years to the day, on May 15, 1931, it was followed by the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of Pius IX, driving home much the same message before it could be forgotten.2 The earthly mission of the Church as the champion of the poor in word, but not necessarily in deed, was now established.
There has clearly been for more than a century a process within the Roman Catholic church that was turning its attention towards this world rather than exclusively to the next one. With a spectacular lurch, this process has made a leap forward and sideways with the election of Pope Francis, a saintly person of exceptional virtues and a deep concern for the poor, the unhappy and the misfit—a concern that seems to overwhelm an intelligence and understanding of this world that one would expect from a graduate of Jesuit training.
On May 16, 2013, a near-anniversary of the two great "socially" oriented encyclicals preceding it that were both issued on a May 15, Pope Francis addressed a quite singular discourse to a group of mainly Third World ambassadors freshly accredited to the Vatican.3 The discourse contains all the code phrases that signal the danger of the course the new Papacy intends to steer. In sharp terms not tempered by piety, Pope Francis condemns the tyranny of money, consumption as the objective of economic life, the lack of its ethical dimension, individualism, a denial of the duties of solidarity, the instability of markets left to themselves, speculation, the ever widening inequality of incomes and, overarching all these evils, the all-pervading evil of capitalism. It is, we may infer though not explicitly told so, manifestly the fault of the capitalist system that countless millions are reduced to a precarious existence tortured by hunger, disease and loss of human dignity. From Liberation Theology to Occupy Wall Street, it is sadly enough all there.
Pursuit of this line of preaching promises to re-fashion the Roman Catholic Church to one tailor-made for the Third World, in particular for much of South America and non-Moslem Africa. As is so often the case, a false doctrine is plausible and popular and its refutation is unpopular and counter-intuitive. How to convince a broad enough public that job protection is a major cause of job destruction and youth unemployment, that wide inequality in income distribution fosters capital accumulation and does more in the long-run interest of the poor than an equal distribution could ever do, that speculation is stabilising and regulation is all too often destabilising, that solidarity imposed as a system has a high cost in generating an ever greater need for further solidarity, that the task of an economy is to meet consumer wants while the task of generating high ethical standards belongs elsewhere in society? The false doctrine has an easy ride, while its refutation is laborious and succeeds, if at all, only once the unkind realities of evolving events wear down the shrine of the false doctrine.
It is an error to accuse Pope Francis of propagating Marxism, which is in any case discredited in his followers' eyes by the abject failure of the Russian Soviet experiment and by the tragicomic mess made by the pupils of Che Guevara in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and other places. Marxism claims to be a pure product of objective science, a claim that is preposterous but at any rate has nothing to do with ethics. In contrast, Pope Francis's teaching is wholly ethical and an extravagantly demanding one at that. He cites one of the Fathers of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, 4th Century Archbishop of Alexandria, that "Not to share one's goods with the poor is to rob and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs". Having something and not sharing it with your neighbour is a sin. Having what you have left is still a sin. Possession continues to be a sin as long as you possess more than any body else. Logically, sin ceases only once nobody has more of any good thing than any body else. Defenders of such papal pronouncements may say that he surely does not want to go so far, but in fairness we can only go by what he is saying, and not by how others would tone it down.
Like countless millions of his fellow men and women who, however, have the excuse of lesser brains, the Pope mistakes capitalism for a distribution game between capital and labour, rich and poor. He is all for tilting the solution to favour the poor. In reality, the game is one about augmenting the game sum. Any attempt to tilt its distribution spoils this aim and reduces the game sum available for division between consumption and capital accumulation. It is not in anybody's long-run interest.
The problem is that Pope Francis does not understand capitalism any more than do people of lesser distinction and this lack of understanding leads to much mischief and damage. The basic unit of capitalism is the firm in which the owners combine labour and capital to produce goods or services consumers need and want. The combination converges towards a regime in which the marginal costs and marginal productivities of labour and capital are all equal, so that no advantage results from changing the combination, while movements in prices or productivities of these two factors provoke a change in their combination. The result is continuing convergence towards maximum efficiency. A different but perfectly equivalent name for this result is profit maximisation. It is bad luck of the most unfortunate kind that this name is the object of hatred and contempt on the part of so many people of good intentions who keep yearning for a nicer and kinder alternative. It is aggravating to see the profit-maximising fat capitalist with his fat cigar and against nature to admit that by producing goods with maximum efficiency he is doing more to relieve world poverty than the deeply concerned Pope Francis and the followers he so compellingly inspires. Mistaking capitalism for the ignoble culprit and a radical egalitarian ethic as its noble purfender opens up perspectives that are not a little frightening.
"Address of Pope Francis to the new Non-resident Ambassadors to the Holy See: Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg and Botswana," Clementine Hall, Thursday, 16 May 2013.