Pro-market Christians in America could learn much from Pope Francis about holy living and compassionate thinking if only they’d think more deeply about his message. Instead, they’re too quick to extract superficial, tangential inferences about what his teaching means for the cause of free market capitalism. Indeed, advancing free markets is no end in itself — it is, or ought to be, a corollary cause for those believe, with sound and defendable reasons, that markets are a just way to bring economic progress to all peoples. Citing Pope Francis’ (alleged) anti-capitalism alone to argue against his teaching reveals a total misunderstanding of why beliefs about economic life are worth holding and, possibly, of the very nature of God.
Neither should one evaluate Pope Francis according to whether he’s pro-America. If a Christian disagrees with the Pope, it ought to have something to do with the Pope’s theology. Patriotism, as an ideal, simply doesn’t rise high enough to serve as any defense against anyone who claims to speak for or about God, no matter what one may think of such a teacher’s true place or motive. If my God is wrong because you’re country is great, it’s country, not God, who you serve.
So don’t interpret Pope Francis’ exhortations against greed and inequality as falling somewhere to the left-of-center on the political spectrum. When the Pope criticizes the market, he’s not doing so as an advocate of further state regulation. He’s doing so as an advocate of holy living. In this sense, we ought to take his teaching on restraint, discretion, and sacrifice personally — applicable to our own lives in some way that perhaps only we can know — and not as part of some larger, implicit ideology or political campaign. Ironically, if we all did this, I’m convinced we’d hear much less about the “evils of capitalism,” even in the context of an economically competitive, “free market” society.
All of this hits on a larger, more insidious issue plaguing American churches today. Sadly, how many have chosen to interpret the Pope — as speaking anti- this or pro- that, instead of do this or do that — is how so many Christians interpret sincere exhortations from truly good teachers. Sound, Biblical teaching on issues like sexuality, family, and citizenship are too quickly seen as denouncements of this or that way of thinking about such issues rather than as (sometimes hard) lessons on how we, personally, can walk with God. The extent to which we think about the Pope’s, or any good teacher’s, lessons on life in such terms is the extent to which we fail to glean what’s truly valuable in good teaching. To be wise has never been so much about understanding what’s true and good, but about willing and living accordingly.