Pope: Neoliberalism and ‘free market’ capitalism have failed the world
Pope Francis waves during the Angelus noon prayer delivered from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. | Gregorio Borgia/AP

The refusal by Pope Francis to meet with U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, stirred controversy when it happened.

On Oct. 4, the leader of one of the world’s major religions, the Roman Catholic Church, stepped into controversy yet again when he issued an encyclical that passionately calls for the replacement of neoliberal capitalism with a more just and humane system.

Encyclicals are the rare but important documents issued by popes when they want to confirm, revise, or initiate new Church policy.

Francis declared in his encyclical that the current coronavirus pandemic underlines the stark reality that capitalism is unable to meet the most basic needs of the vast majority of the world’s people and that it is, in fact, responsible for massive suffering and war.

Pope Francis wrote that the coronavirus pandemic has proven that the “magic theories” of market capitalism have failed and that the world needs a new type of politics that “promotes dialogue and solidarity and rejects war at all costs.”

In the encyclical, titled Fratelli Tuti which means “Brothers All,” the Pope warns that the neoliberal capitalist global economy has caused a “dark cloud” of injustices to cover the world and that it is destroying the planet.

Even the Catholic Church itself was not out of bounds for criticism from the Pope, who said certain Church doctrine was also part of the problem the world faces and that it should be overhauled.

In the encyclical, Francis also rejected the centuries-old Catholic Church’s own doctrine justifying war as a means of legitimate defense, saying it had been too broadly applied in history and was no longer viable.

“It is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war,’” Francis wrote in one of the many controversial new elements of the encyclical.

The rejection of the doctrine of just war is in line with a growing movement against nuclear weapons, particularly in Europe. Anti-nuclear war advocates who have been constantly demonstrating at a U.S. nuclear missile base in Ramstein, Germany, have said for years that in this modern era, war itself is the main enemy.

Their movement has increasingly forged ties with the environmental movement, decrying the spoiling of the earth itself by capitalist profit-making fossil fuel companies.

The refusal by the Pope to meet with Pompeo is consistent with his condemnation of the military-industrial complex and the dangerous and militaristic approach to world problems. Pompeo, who has been a cheerleader for Trumpian threats to countries around the world, has attacked the Pope too, calling him “soft” on China.

Francis said in his encyclical that neoliberal capitalism has caused the “human family to fall apart” and that the problems with this system go back far beyond the beginning of the pandemic. He said pandemic and the response to it, however, had confirmed his belief that current political and economic institutions must be reformed to address the legitimate needs of the people most harmed by the coronavirus. He has called for the world’s poor to be given priority in receiving an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

He strongly implied that the refusal of the Trump administration to link arms with people in other countries fighting the virus is a policy that must be reversed. He said, however, that fighting the virus will take more than just adding to or increasing what is already being done. He said it will take more than tinkering with the status quo.

“Aside from the differing ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident,” Francis wrote. “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to just refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”

The encyclical also warned politicians that they must heed the mass “popular movements” around the world that are fighting not just the virus but for economic and social justice. He said it was particularly important to listen to what those movements have to say about combatting the worldwide joblessness that has resulted from the pandemic.

He said support must be given to solutions put forward by these movements, by labor unions, and by marginalized groups. He said these groups must be involved in the construction of a more just society.

“The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom,” he wrote. “It is imperative to have a proactive economic policy directed at ‘promoting an economy that favors productive diversity and business creativity’ and makes it possible for jobs to be created, and not cut.”

In a barely veiled condemnation of Donald Trump and other right-wing world leaders, Francis denounced “populist politics that seek to demonize and isolate” and called for a “culture of encounter” that promotes dialogue, solidarity, and a sincere effort at working for the common good.

The encyclical struck at the heart of a traditional ideological defense of capitalism by tacking the sacrosanct concept of “the absolute right” of private property.

Francis rejected that concept, stressing instead the “social purpose” and common good that must come from sharing the Earth’s resources. He called neoliberal capitalism a “perverse” global economic system, which he said consistently keeps the poor on the margins while enriching the one percent. This was essentially a repeat of what he said in his historic environmental encyclical, Laudato Sii, (Praised Be) in 2015.

He also doubled down on his opposition to other theories used to justify the capitalist system.

He firmly rejected, for example, the theory of “trickle-down” economics popularized in the U.S. during the years that Ronald Reagan was president.

“It simply doesn’t work that way,” the Pope wrote. “Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’—without using the name—as the only solution to societal problems,” he wrote. “There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged ‘spillover’ does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society.”

Another area where Francis hit Trump administration policy was in the area of immigrant rights.

He said the welcoming of immigrants was necessary for a society to remain healthy, and he strongly condemned the nationalistic and isolationist policies pursued by Trump and other world leaders.

The encyclical employs biblical references to justify the progressive political and economic views it expresses.

Francis made use of the story of the Good Samaritan, declaring that kindness and looking out for strangers are both things we must do today and that those things must be features of the new world that has to be created.

In the encyclical, Francis further codified his opposition to demonization of Muslims and the Islamic faith.

A section on “human fraternity” and world peace is derived from his 2019 joint appeal with the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam. Their “Human Fraternity” document established the relationship between Catholics and Muslims as “brothers,” with a common mission to promote peace.

This may turn out to be as controversial as his condemnation of capitalism and his call for it to be replaced. The first Catholic-Muslim joint document in history is now part of a papal encyclical.

Some conservative Catholics and conservative Church leaders have attacked the Pope for signing that document in the first place, calling it “heretical.”

The document says that a diversity of religions and beliefs is “the will of God.” This directly contradicts the centuries-old doctrine that the Catholic Church is the one and only true Church.

AP contributed to this article.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.