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Is Capitalism Catholic? Pope Demands Justice

It was a gathering of fourteen immigrants who are Catholic Workers who inspired this article.

These men were paid so little–$15.00 to $20.00 per week in their countries–that they were forced to migrate to survive. The response from new arrivals who have worked for foreign companies in their countries is always the same: “Either we have a place to live and nothing to eat or we have something to eat and no place to live. We cannot afford both.”

Ironically, these immigrants came to this country where the headquarters of some of these slave labor companies are located; they are subject to much criticism and harrassment, and are accused of being greedy for “coming to get rich.” Something is wrong in a system which is now worldwide: First World factories in Third World countries which rob people of their wages and then accuse them of greed when they migrate.

Catholic moralists must begin to ask questions about money gained from slave labor or returns on stock invested in these slave labor operations. Can company employees or stockholders be Catholics in good standing if they accept profit from maquiladoras?

The Pope asks this question. The Holy Father visited Poland this summer and spoke forcefully about justice and solidarity, putting together ideas from a number of documents on Catholic social teaching to call capitalists to a more ethical approach. He spoke so strongly that some European newspapers suggested after his visit that some capitalists run the risk of excommunication.

Every time we write about capitalism, small business people or retired sales people complain that we are criticizing them. Not so. Small businesses are quite distinct from the global market. Our response is that we are merely trying to be good Catholics.

What happened in Poland?

Prior to Pope John Paul II’s recent visit to Poland, two young Polish youths murdered another youth for the article of clothing that they wanted. (This had already happened in Houston as well.)

This heinous act may have ignited the Pope’s response to the present practice of capitalism in Poland, first in regards to the tremendous focus of capitalism to consume, possess and to have at any cost, and second, the danger of capitalism’s focusing on and making profit at the expense of everyone, especially the worker who participates in
manufacturing products. Workers must be paid just wages.

“Do not let yourselves be deceived by visions of immediate profits at the expense of others,” the Holy Father said at Legnica, Poland, on June 2nd. “Beware of a semblance of exploitation. Otherwise every sharing in the Eucharistic bread will become an accusation.”

The Pope used the occasion of his visit to make twenty-six presentations to the Polish people to emphasize justice and concern for the poor. The Pope does not condemn capitalism, only its abuse, where worker rights are abused and the poor neglected, where the profit motive dominates to the neglect of others.

What is needed today, the Holy Father said, is a more profound interpretation of the option for the poor, a wider option for the powerless, which takes into account the demands of poverty and indignity. (Reported in the London Tablet 6/28/97).

The Social Questions

The Pope, speaking in defense of the poor, quoted from several of his encyclicals regarding social justice and just remuneration for workers:

“Many times I have dealt with social questions in my talks and above all in my encyclicals… Yet as long as there is an injustice in the world, no matter how small, we must return to these themes. Otherwise the Church would not be faithful to the mission entrusted to her by Christ–the mission of justice.”

“Times in fact do change, circumstances change, but there are always in our midst those who need the voice of the Church and that of the pope, to give expression to their anxiety, pain and misery. They must not be disappointed. They must know that the Church was and is with them, that the pope is with them; that he embraces with his heart and with his prayer all who are affected by suffering. The pope will speak out–and he cannot fail to speak out–on social problems, because here man is involved, concrete individuals.” (Legnica, June 2)

The Pope also addressed the responsiblity of workers at Legnica: “… to those who undertake work, any type of work, I say: “Do it responsibly, honestly and accurately. Take on your duties in a spirit of coooperation with God in the work of the creation of the world, “Subdue the earth” Cf. Gen. 1:28).

Worse than under Communism

At Legnica the Pope confirmed that some social problems were already more acute under capitalism than under communism. Exploitation of workers was rife. It was “manifested in conditions of employment in which the worker not only has no guaranteed rights but is also subjected to such an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear of the loss of his job that he is in practice deprived of any freedom of decision.” The Church must go on defending freedom in a new social context which is “inspired by liberal (capitalist) ideology.”

Shortly before his visit to Poland the Holy Father spoke of the role of the worker:

“The Church reminds all who attempt to assert the predominance of technology, thereby reducing man to a “product” or a means of production, that “man is the subject of work,” since in the divine plan “work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work.'”

“For the same reason, she also opposes the claims of capitalism, proclaiming ‘the principle of the priority of labor over capital,’ since human labor’ is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause’ of the process of production.” (The Pope Speaks,
Vol.42, No.5, Sept./Oct., 1997, p.290)

On another recent occasion, the Pope warned against the present laissez-faire or neo-liberal trend in the globalization of the economy:

“A balanced and well-regulated world market can bring with prosperity the development of culture, democracy, solidarity and peace. But one can expect very different effects from an unbridled market which, under the pretext of competitiveness, prospers by exploiting people and the environment to excess.” (Maryknoll Magazine, Sept. 1997, p. 26).

The Pope did not allow excuses for Polish capitalists who said that at least we are better off under our capitalism than we were under Communist rule.

Capitalists cannot use the failure of the Soviet Block Communism as an approval for all forms of the capitalist system. Capitalism must stand or fall on its own merits, not as an alternative to a failed system. (See the Houston Catholic Worker, “A Civilization of Love,” November, 1995.

The Pope did not allow, nor did the previous Popes allow for oversimplification, for example, that Communism is to be condemned because it is atheistic and capitalism is good because capitalists believe in God.

The problem is more profound.

The Popes since Leo XIII saw the ideology of liberalism (unrestrained capitalism) as the root cause of socialism and communism. Even Pius XI admitted socialism’s parent was liberalism (liberal economics).

Earlier Pope Leo XIII laid the charge of spreading atheism at the door of liberal capitalist states, accusing them of “setting aside the ancient religion” and spreading “moral degeneracy.”

In 1836, well before Leo XIII, there were prophetic voices. Francis Ozanam (recently canonized in France during the Pope’s visit and founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society which operates in many United States parishes), spoke out against exploitation of workers in his day: “There is exploitation when the manager considers the worker not as an associate, nor as an aide, but as a tool from which it is necesary to draw the most service possible at the lowest price…. The worker-machine is no more than a piece of capital, like the slave of ancient times. (Notre Dame magazine, Archdiocese of Paris, July 31, 1997.)

Ozanam describes perfectly what is happening today to workers in the maquiladoras (plants belonging to companies in the U.S., Japan, Europe or South Korea which are placed in Third World countries to take advantage of cheap labor) throughout the Third World. Millions of young women and men are paid slave wages in Latin America while the owners of their companies make huge profits. Young teens are paid $.16 to make a shirt that sells for $25.00 in the United States.

The question which divides the men of our day, St. Francis Ozanam continues prophetically, “is no longer a question of political forms (models), it is a social question, it is to know if the spirit of selfishness or the spirit of sacrifice will rule, if society will be nothing more than a great exploitation for the profit of the strongest or a consecration of each of us for the good of all and, above all, for the protection of the weak. There are too many who have too much and who still want more; there are many more who do not have enough.”


The Holy Father, conscious of abuses, spoke so strongly against the global economy that enriches the rich and enslaves the poor, that some European Catholic papers, (e.g., Katholicke Nieuwsblad) ran headlines stating that capitalists risk excommunication (Capitotisten bedreiged excommunicatie).

Wealth Creation

Instead of addressing the problem of slave labor, some writers address the problems of capitalism by asking the Church to develop and promote a theology of wealth creation. In fact, they feel that the Church in her teaching has neglected wealth creation. This is an unfair attack on the Church because in its history there is no known case where it has neglected the rich or wealth creation. Would that its record in regards to the poor were as good!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

As usual, the final word is expressed very well in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’ She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of ‘capitalism,’ individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for ‘there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.’ Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.” (2425).

Holy Father corrects Exaggerated Capitalism

Pope John Paul II began his pontificate in Poland in 1979, which was clearly responsible for the demise of the false system of Communism.

Now the Pope returned to Poland to assist in correcting a savage capitalism that had gotten out of hand and may be as bad or worse than the devil Communism that was driven out.

The workers suffer the same risk or worse than they suffered under Communism.

The Pope’s Polish visit has restored a sense of balance to Catholic social teaching by distancing it from rival ideologies.

The collapse of Communism showed that the person can not be neglected, that the government cannot create the perfect society. Any hope for the future must be based on personalism.

The principles and ideals that brought down Communism–principles shared equally by Christians and non-believers, still wait to be put into practice. “If a way is to be found of applying them, where better to begin than in Poland, where this turbulent pontificate began?” (Jonathan Luxmoor, The Tablet, June 28, 1997).

The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Reiser, spoke on September 12, 1997, expressing similar concerns: “The dramatic and destructive effects of the policies of economic globalization and free trade are before our eyes. They have led to an unprecedented concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small minority, thus widening the gap between rich and poor both within and between countries.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 6, November 1997.