“A Pope Francis Lexicon” is a new volume collecting 54 essays by a range of prominent figures on the different words that have become important in the ministry of Pope Francis. Available now in the U.S. from Liturgical Press, the volume is introduced with a foreword from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and a preface from Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley. The volume is co-edited by Cindy Wooden, Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, and Joshua J. McElwee, Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. Following is San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy’s chapter in the “Lexicon”, which focuses on how Francis speaks about capitalism.  


Pope Francis has at times excoriated the logic of the capitalist system as “the dung of the devil,” a “subtle dictatorship,” and a “new form of colonialism.” At other moments the pope has pointed to the achievements of market economies in alleviating global poverty through creativity and freedom, applauding in his address before the U.S. Congress in September 2015 “the right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise [that] are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.” 

While the experience of John Paul in the statist dictatorship of Eastern Europe after World War II led him to underscore the ways in which government control threatens the freedom of the human person in economic and social life, Pope Francis brings the perspective of the Global South to bear, revealing that free markets can generate a totalitarian ethos no less dangerous to the common good and the dignity of the human person.

The question of capitalism is for the pope not a matter of speculative debate among competing abstract systems, but the moral imperative to recognize amidst the creative capacity of the current global economy the presence of destructive patterns that destroy lives, physically, spiritually and morally. This economy kills! 

The first destructive pattern of twenty-first century global capitalism is the strangling force of inequality that it breeds in the world. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed…. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems, or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills” (EG 202).

The Second Vatican Council condemned grave economic inequality, as “a source of scandal [that] militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace” (Gaudium et Spes 29). And each of the modern popes has identified the multi-dimensional harm of grave inequality that is destructive on the material, cultural and spiritual levels. But in the concept of exclusion, Pope Francis has captured the devastation wrought by global capitalism, and its capacity to effectively annihilate human identity in society.

If direct destruction to human lives and the human community constitute the central failing of the global economy of our day, the destruction to the world which is our common home constitutes a second, powerfully devastating consequence of capitalist structures, according to Francis. The logic of market systems that privatize profits while placing the environmental destruction wrought by such profits in the public sphere has contributed enormously to the cascade of destruction that is suffocating the earth.

Commenting on the manner in which the very structures and moral claims of the free market system threaten the earth, Pope Francis sorrowfully observes: “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule” (EG 56). And the structures of inequality endemic to capitalist economies accentuate the disproportionate devastation of the poor which takes place through environmental degradation, resulting in the inversion of the preferential option: the poor always suffer the first and most intense effects of environmental damage.

The final central defect that Pope Francis identifies in the global capitalism of the present day is a spiritual one. In its twin foundations of the ever greater accumulation of material possessions and economic power, capitalism is inherently spiritually corrosive. The driving force of a capitalist system is the desire to accumulate. It is not rooted in the drive to create, or to benefit society or to build culture, but in the need to acquire. Such an economic system makes it ever more difficult to build a culture which is not trapped in materialism and the drive to dominate. 

Only when it is recognized that free markets are not a first principle of economic justice, but merely a means to achieve such justice, can the construction of an effective and balanced juridical order within and among nations realistically advance.

* Robert McElroy is the Bishop of San Diego, California. He has doctorates in theology and political science and serves on the U.S. bishops’ administrative, ecumenical, domestic justice, and international affairs committees.

Full story at La Stampa.