Why Pope Francis isn’t Communist: Christianity and Capitalism


Pope-Francis-Marxism-is-wrongThe other day, Chris texted me this BBC News Story: Is the Pope a Communist?  It is, of course very well written (BBC you know!), and the answer (Spoiler Alert!) is No. But it got me thinking back to my (sadly never finished) Doctoral Thesis on the Health Care System of the later Roman Empire (4th century to 15th century). As background for that, I quite necessarily had to consider the Church’s attitudes toward Wealth and the Economy. I will try to be less prolix (overly lengthy) than usual, as I want to make a point.

Economy itself come from Latin oeconomia, from Ancient Greek οἰκονομία (oikonomíamanagement of a household, administration), from οἶκος (oîkoshouse) + νόμος (nómoslaw) (surface analysis eco- +‎ -nomy). That’s why the Patriarch of Constantinople is called the Ecumenical Patriarch: he is the Patriarch of the Emperor’s Household. Members of Brophy’s Class of ’72 may remember that Oikos was the theme of our Senior Yearbook.

Economy in America

Economic systems are not part of nature. They do not come from God. They are created (deliberately or unknowingly) by human beings. I am aware that Islam is a Religious-Societal fusion, but it seems to adapt to different economies too.

In America, we have somehow gotten the idea that Capitalism is the economic system given by God, and that it is linked to Christianity.

Well, it’s not really “somehow.” The Puritans (an unhappy and dour group) were pretty extreme Calvinists. That is, in my view, an aberrant form of Christianity that teaches double-presestination: God creates the Good and loves them, and he creates the bad, and he hates them. There’s no way out. If you are among the good, you are showered with God’s blessings, including prosperity and are noble and deserving. If you are among those pre-destined to damnation, you are SOL: poor, downtrodden, and undeserving. Sound like some political speeches you’ve heard recently?

Jonathan Edwards College at Yale

Jonathan Edwards College at Yale

Try reading one of the “Sermons” of Jonathan Edwards from the Colonial Period. It is stiff stuff, and we have a Residential College at Yale named after him:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you…!” From “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Aside from the fact that this teaching is utterly inimical to the real message of the New Testament, it deeply influenced American life. Today we practice social Calvanism and Social Darwinism in the United States. The rich get richer and the middle-class and the poor get poorer. And that how God seems to want it, to listen to some of our politicians.

1. So is Capitalism Christian? 2. Is Christianity Capitalist by Nature? Hint: 1. It can be. 2. No.

Christianity and Economic Systems

St. Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great

As we have noted before, there is no absolute uniformity of Christian views of Economic Systems, because there are so many kinds of Christianity. However, there are some definite majority opinions. I will look at the two largest groups, the Catholic Communion of Churches, and the Eastern Orthodox / Oriental Orthodox Communions of Churches as prime examples.

In part of the time period I was working on for my thesis, we see very clearly how the leading theologians of the 4th century Church, the Cappadocians (St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian [in the West: Nazianzen]) as well as St. Gregory of Nyssa and his and Basil’s sister, St. Macrina, their great teacher) had definite views on Wealth. For example, from St. Basil:

Οὐχὶ γυμνὸς ἐξέπεσες τῆς γαστρός; οὐ γυμνὸς πάλιν εἰς τὴν γὴν ὑποστρέψεις; Τὰ δὲ παρόντα σοι πόθεν; Εἰ μὲν ἀπὸ ταυτομάτου λέγεις, ἄθεος εἶ, μὴ γνωρίζων τὸν κτίσαντα, μηδὲ χάριν ἔχων τῷ δεδωκότι· εἰ δὲ ὁμολογεῖς εἶναι παρὰ Θεοῦ, εἰπὲ τὸν /276C/ λόγον ἡμῖν δι᾽ ὃν ἔλαβες. Μὴ ἄδικος ὁ Θεός, ὁ ἀνίσως ἡμῖν διαιρῶν τὰ τοῦ βίου; Διὰ τί σὺ μὲν πλουτεῖς, ἐκεῖνος δὲ πένεται; Ἢ πάντως, ἵνα καὶ σὺ χρηστότητος καὶ πιστῆς οἰκονομίας μισθὸν ὑποδέξῃ, κἀκεῖνος τοῖς μεγάλοις ἄθλοις τῆς ὑπομονῆς τιμηθῇ; Σὺ δέ, πάντα τοῖς ἀπληρώτοις τῆς πλεονεξίας κόλποις περιλαβών, οὐδένα οἴει ἀδικεῖν τοσούτους ἀποστερῶν; Τίς ἐστιν ὁ πλεονέκτης; Ὁ μὴ ἐμμένων τῇ αὐταρκεῖᾳ. Τίς δέ ἐστιν ὁ ἀποστερητής; Ὁ ἀφαιρούμενος τὰ ἑκάστου. Σὺ δὲ οὐ πλεονέκτης; σὺ δὲ οὐκ ἀποστερητής; ἃ πρὸς οἰκονομίαν ἐδέξω, ταῦτα ἴδια σεαυτοῦ ποιούμενος; Ἢ ὁ μὲν /277Α/ ἐνδεδυμένον ἀπογυμνῶν λωποδύτης ὀνομασθήσεται· ὁ δὲ τὸν γυμνὸν μὴ ἐνδύων, δυνάμενος τοῦτο ποιεῖν, ἄλλης τινὸς ἐστι προσηγορίας ἄξιος; Τοῦ πεινῶντός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος, ὃν σὺ κατέχεις· τοῦ γυμνητεύοντος τὸ ἱμάτιον, ὃ σὺ φυλάσσεις ἐν ἀποθήκαις· τοῦ ἀνυποδέτου τὸ ὑπόδημα, ὃ παρὰ σοὶ κατασήπεται· τοῦ χρῄζοντος τὸ ἀργύριον, ὃ κατορύξας ἔχεις. Ὥστε τοσούτους ἀδικεῖς, ὅσοις παρέχειν ἐδύνασο. Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.

From St. Basil the Great, Homilia in illud dictum evangelii secundum Lucam: «Destruam horrea mea, et majora ædificabo:» itemque de avaritia (Homily on the saying of the Gospel According to Luke, “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones,” and on greed), §7 (PG 31, 276B – 277A).

St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople in the 4th century gave his rich congregation a tongue-lashing:

The Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian

The Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian

Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Do not neglect him when he is naked; do not, while you honor him here with silken garments, neglect Him perishing outside of cold and nakedness. For He that said “This is my body,” and by His word confirmed the fact, also said, “You saw me hungry and you did not feed me” and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” This [the body of Christ on the altar] has no need of coverings, but of a pure soul; but that requires much attention. Let us learn therefore to be strict in life, and to honor Christ as He Himself desires….

For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, being hungry, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Do you make for Him a cup of gold, while you refuse to give him a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Do you furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while you refuse Him even the most basic coverings? And what good comes of it?

And these things I say, not forbidding munificence in these matters, but admonishing you to do those other works, together with these, or rather even before these. Because for not having adorned the church no one was ever blamed, but for not having helped the poor, hell is threatened, and unquenchable fire, and the punishment of evil spirits. Do not therefore while adorning His house overlook your brother in distress, for he is more properly a temple than the other. — From Homily 50: 3-4.


The economy in 4th century Roman society was a kind of Political Capitalism. Private Capital existed, but the State also had quite of bit of control. In a nutshell, here is the economic theory of the Cappadocians, which is the majority view among many Christian Churches:

God has given each one a skill. One person is a shipbuilder, another is a jeweler, another is a farmer. And some have the talent that we today would call entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur has the talent of organizing the production of goods and services. And he or she amasses wealth by doing so. There is no problem with that as long as these conditions apply:

  • Workers must be able to live on the Wages paid
  • Working conditions must be safe and healthy
  • The products and services must be of quality, and provided at a fair price
  • The Entrepreneur must be lavish in his/her support of the poor
  • The Entrepreneur must only use his/her wealth (and therefore influence) for the good of Society, never to self-aggrandize or dominate others.
  • The Entrepreneur must always act Ethically in his/her business dealings

The reason for this is because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and God’s most important attribute in our regard is that God is ὁ φιλάνθρoπος, ho philánthropos, the lover of humanity. Therefore we must exhibit the same virtue in dealing with our fellows, and by extension, all creation.

I should also mention that–of course–some people have greater skills than others. We have lots of people who can build bridges, we only have a few who can design them. Those with greater skills can certainly profit from their expertise, but not to the detriment of the builders, and not obscenely.

The Seven Planks of Catholic Social Teaching, Sister Joan Hart, SSND

The Seven Planks of Catholic Social Teaching, Sister Joan Hart, SSND

Now we all know that Christian societies have not always followed this formula (Slavery, Serfdom, etc.), but it is sound theology.

Starting with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) the Roman Catholic Church has pursued a consistent push to preach and implement the ancient social justice teachings of Christianity. Today, many view the Roman Catholic Church as conservative, but in Economic teachings, the Church is very progressive. Pope Francis is firmly in the same line of his predecessors in this matter. The Rights of the Workers, the lessening of inequalities, etc. are solid Christian values. No Communist he.

You remember the spritual, “Give me that Old Time Religion”? Progressive economic teachings are part of that Old Time Religion. I highly recommend Pastor Jim Wallis’s 2005 study, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. 

Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic Journalist and Philosopher, writes that Christianity made possible the rise of Capitalism. Although he and I would not agree on all points of almost anything, I think he does have a point. I think, however, that capitalism arose in other contexts too, and was already flourishing in Rome. He romanticizes American Capitalism far too much. Read his article here to see what you think. I think he is a bit rosy on the wonders capitalism has wrought, and kind of leaves out the huge evils of colonialism. But I do like his conclusion:

As the world enters the third millennium, we may hope that the church, after some generations of loss of nerve, rediscovers its old confidence in the economic order. Few things would help more in raising up all the world’s poor out of poverty. The church could lead the way in setting forth a religious and moral vision worthy of a global world, in which all live under a universally recognizable rule of law, and every individual’s gifts are nourished for the good of all.

I believe this is what the pope [St. John Paul II] has in mind when he speaks of a “civilization of love.” Capitalism must infused by that humble gift of love called caritas, described by Dante as “the Love that moves the Sun and all the stars.” This is the love that holds families, associations, and nations together. The current tendency of many to base the spirit of capitalism on sheer materialism is a certain road to economic decline. Honesty, trust, teamwork, and respect for the law are gifts of the spirit. They cannot be bought.

What I take from this is that:

  1. While Christianity is not essentially Capitalist, from an historical viewpoint, Capitalism did arise in Christendom, given the social conditions.
  2. Since at least Western Capitalism was born in the context of Christianity, it is Christianity’s job to fix it. And that’s what Pope Francis is working on.

Can a Christian be a Capitalist?

The answer is, of course, Yes. While Christianity leans toward communalism and distributivism, it is not strictly speaking tied to any one economic system. A restrained, ethically conducted capitalism is just fine with Christianity’s majority view. It is not so much the virtues of the economic systems that count, but the virtues of those who are in the system that counts.

Socialist_Joe_PettThat certainly does not match the madness of our current economic system. Every one of the Cappadocian principles enunciated above is being violated over and over. We have a two tiered system: “Socialism for the Rich, and Capitalism for the Rest of Us.” Unreal instruments are being traded on the stock market. We are moving toward a new Oligarchy. Read Capital in the 21st Century for just how dire it is getting.

There will be those who take umbrage at what I say above, and will label me as a Marxist. This is a flaw of discourse. Terms must have real meaning. I do not believe in dialectical materialism, I do not believe in the evolution of the homo socialis, Therefore I am not a Marxist. It’s like calling President Obama a Socialist. He’s not. Labeling people with slur words does nothing to further the discourse.

Not all of us who are appalled at the excesses of our current economy are Marxists or the dreaded Socialists (Heaven forbid!). I would probably be somewhere on the scale of Socialist-Capitalist hybrid. The American economic system has just gone bonkers.

The Economy and Us

My approach is this, based on Mark 2:27:

καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς Τὸ σάββατον διὰ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἐγένετο, καὶ οὐχ ὁ ἄνθρωπος διὰ τὸ σάββατον·

And He said to them, “The Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

(The word ἄνθρωπος ánthrōpos refers to the human species in Ancient and Koine Greek. Men and Women are ἀνήρ anḗrman,” and γυνή gunḗwoman.”)

So I say: “The Economy is made for people, not people for the economy.” Any economic system should have one and only one goal, to make life better for the largest part of humanity. To this end, my favorite work on Economic Justice is the classic A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Read it!

71Z4rQriDHLHere are his two principles of Justice, expanded on by Wikipedia:

“First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”

The basic liberties of citizens are the political liberty to vote and run for office, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience, freedom of personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest. However, he says:

“liberties not on the list, for example, the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g. means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle.”

Second: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that:

(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle (the difference principle).
(b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity

While non-sectarian, these are perfectly harmonious with the Cappadocian principles of Entrepreneurship.

The Cafeteria


Conservatives often want the Churches to preach about sex, gender and personal morality, and not about social justice and the economy. Liberals often want the opposite. The vast majority of us, including me, are therefore what in the Catholic Communion of Churches are called Cafeteria Catholics. We pick and choose which issues to use the Church’s teachings about. I know there are some out there who try to follow the whole menu, and I applaud you!

Cthulhu Rising


In my posts about the new Cthulhu, the Kochtopus, please do not see a condemnation of all wealthy and of capitalism. I decry the Koch’s corrupt practices and lust for power and control, and am not arguing against an ethically guided, sane capitalism.

OK, that’s my screed for the day. Feel free to discuss among yourselves!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

2 thoughts on “Why Pope Francis isn’t Communist: Christianity and Capitalism

  1. Pingback: First Thoughts on Laudato Sí | Language For You!

  2. Pingback: Some Clear Thinking on Economics and Politics | Language For You!

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