Pope Francis hasn’t minced words about his views on free-markets—a.k.a. a “survival of the fittest” economic system that “kills.” American-style capitalism may be a messy and flawed beast, but one with a proven track record of raising billions of human souls around the world out of desperate poverty. So the Pope’s stance has kept many U.S. Catholics, including myself, on the sidelines of the Francis adoration society.
But when His Holiness addressed the U.S. Congress on Thursday, I watched from the U.S. Capitol’s west balcony with intrigue and surprise as he embraced and extolled the very roots of American economic life. From his opening big applause line—expressing delight at being in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”—to his insistence that business is a “noble vocation,” Pope Francis knew how to work his way into his audience’s heart, even here in the avatar of modern capitalism.
Pope Francis’ admiration for the American dream seemed genuine, not just good manners. He drew on the heroism and philosophies of four Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. They are part of the American spirit, he said, and “a people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions, and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward with dignity.”
Yes, this Pope showed his bold progressive stripes, especially when invoking the left-wing Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement. And he condemned inequality, citing “unjust structures and actions [that] are all too apparent … even in the developed world.”
But he also insisted the “noble vocation” of business can be “directed to producing wealth and improving the world.” The private sector, he added, should be a “fruitful source of prosperity … especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” Hard to argue with that one.
On climate change (a phrase he didn’t use), Pope Francis called on business, academia, and research organizations to “limit and direct” technology toward planet-protecting efforts.
His stance on climate change (act now to stop it), the death penalty (end it), and immigration (“we, the people, of this continent are not fearful of foreigners because most of us were once foreigners”) are billed as intrusions into politics, with his thumb on the progressive side of the scale.
But in Thursday’s address, the Pope dwelled on the polarization and intolerance plaguing not only Congress but the American electorate. “We must guard against the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners,” he said. “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”
Politics, he eloquently reminded us, “is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good.” On the verge of another bruising budget battle and government shutdown, we can only hope the lawmakers in his audience took note.
Candidates running for president might take note, too. Days after GOP candidate Ben Carson declared he’d never support a Muslim for president, the Pope offered this reminder: “In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to the building and strengthening of society.” He quoted the Declaration of Independence when arguing that political activity should be rooted in human dignity.
But the Pope’s overriding theme, one that brought lawmakers and cabinet secretaries to their feet, wasn’t political at all. It wasn’t right or left, Democrat or Republican.
It’s a theme that should flourish in a free market with attentive leaders, and usually doesn’t in a socialist economy—the simple Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“If we want security, let us give security. If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities,” he said. “The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” It’s a worthy yardstick for capitalist aspirations, too.