Pope Francis and the Free Market

The biggest event of the current news cycle is the election of Pope Francis as the successor to Benedict XVI. Seemingly this would be inside baseball, applicable only to the world’s 1.2 billion or so Roman Catholics. In other words, the inner workings of the Vatican deal more with spiritual matters and social issues than economic freedoms. But it should be noted that the papacy over the past century has contributed much ammunition to the same free-market battles fought by the Mackinac Center and its fellow think tanks throughout the world.

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The secular free-market world has its “Road to Serfdom” by Friedrich Hayek, “The Law” by Frederic Bastiat and Milton and Rose Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” for example, but past popes have also authored groundbreaking works espousing economic and political freedoms. Among these are Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” (“On Capital and Labor”), Pope Pius XI’s “Quadragesimo Anno” (On Reconstructing the Social Order), and “Centesimus Annus” by Pope John Paul II.

Space prohibits details of the championing of limited government intervention into private industry (subsidiarity) and decentralized governments enumerated in the above-listed papal encyclicals, but suffice to write the oft-repeated claim that among those most responsible for the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s were British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. This last, a man raised in Poland who opted for a religious life despite government hostility toward his faith, was the only one among the three to witness firsthand the crushing of the human entrepreneurial spirit under Communist rule.

This leads us to Pope Francis, the first pope elected from the Americas. As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Francis I hails from South America — Argentina specifically. Both areas have been marked as hotbeds of military dictatorships, totalitarian regimes and decidedly anti-free market governments for much of the last 100 years.

Even some members of the Catholic clergy in South America jumped aboard the socialist bandwagon with a new-fangled twist on the faith bizarrely labeled “Liberation Theology,” which has little to do with theological underpinnings inasmuch it was inspired by Marxism that is by definition and practice antithetical to liberty. The most vocal liberation theologians found themselves censored by the Vatican.

Cardinal Bergoglio, however, abjured liberation theology as well as Argentina’s military dictatorship. He reserved his efforts for helping the poor and disenfranchised.

When it comes to matters within the church, it’s better to allow those with more insight and authority to comment. “Pope Francis is a man of great spirituality who is known for his commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy as well as for his simplicity of life,” said the Acton Institute’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico in a statement. The Grand Rapids- and Rome-based think tank employs both free-market, faith-based tenets to promote economic freedom.

Sirico continued: “Like Benedict XVI, he combines concern for the poor with an insistence that it’s not the Church’s responsibility to be a political actor or to prescribe precise solutions to economic problems. In that regard, he’s a model for all Catholic bishops and clergy throughout the world.”

No one knows, of course, what directions exactly Pope Francis will lead his papacy or even if events will dictate what course he’s forced to lead his church. What we can surmise is — should he stay the course established by his recent predecessors — economic freedom advocates the world over shall have gained another powerful ally.

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