The Vatican's Journey From Anti-Communism to Anti-Capitalism

The pope's strong condemnation of income inequality and free markets shows how much has changed in the Catholic Church since the Cold War.


Pope Francis is once again shaking things up in the Catholic Church. On Tuesday, he issued his first “apostolic exhortation,” declaring a new enemy for the Catholic Church: modern capitalism. “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

He couldn't be much clearer. The pope has taken a firm political stance against right-leaning, pro-free market economic policies, and his condemnation appears to be largely pointed at Europe and the United States. His explicit reference to “trickle-down” economic policies—the hallmark of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their political successors—is just the beginning: Throughout 224 pages on the future of the Church, he condemns income inequality, “the culture of prosperity,” and “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

Taken in the context of the last half-century of Roman Catholicism, this is a radical move. Fifty years ago, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, Church leaders quietly declared a very different economic enemy: communism. But Pope Francis’s communitarian, populist message shows just how far the Church has shifted in five decades—and how thoroughly capitalism has displaced communism as a monolithic political philosophy.


In 1962, as the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome, Europe was deeply divided. In his book What Happened at Vatican II, Jesuit historian John O’Malley set the scene:

The Iron Curtain had fallen. For Catholicism this meant, among other things, that even the simplest communication with bishops and the faithful in Eastern Europe was difficult and fraught with dangers. The arrest and trial of the primate of Hungary, Cardinal József Mindszenty, in 1948, opened the public’s eyes to the brutal attitude of the Communist regime toward the Church. The even more brutal suppression of the revolution there by Russian troops in 1956 was just one more confirmation that no reconciliation was possible between “the free world” and “the Soviet bloc.”

Thirteen years earlier, at the end of World War II, the Holy Office had officially excommunicated communists from the Catholic Church and declared the ideology at odds with fundamental tenets of the faith. But in the lead-up to the Council, it wasn't clear whether the broader body of Church leaders would make a similar statement. Several bishops from communist countries weren’t able to travel to Rome because their visas were denied. Although certain bishops, particularly those from the Eastern bloc, pushed for a sweeping statement against communism, the Council never formally considered a proposal to make a statement.

Before he died in 1963, the pope who convened the Council, John XXIII, did issue an encyclical, Pacem in Terris, which addressed the issue of “universal peace.” While he didn’t condemn communism, he did endorse democracy. “The fact that authority comes from God does not mean that men have no power to choose those who are to rule the State, or to decide upon the type of government they want,” he wrote. “Hence the above teaching is consonant with any genuinely democratic form of government.”

The following year, John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, made a much clearer statement against communism in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. “We are driven to repudiate such ideologies as deny God and oppress the Church,” he wrote. “These ideologies are often identified with economic, social and political regimes; atheistic communism is a glaring instance of this.”

Albeit in somewhat passive terms, the Church had made its political and economic position clear: It rejected communism, and specifically its suppression of religion, in favor of the West and democracy—which were tied tightly to free-market economic principles. Many years later, the Polish Pope John Paul II was given credit for helping to undermine communist rule in his country, where Catholic churches provided a space for anti-communist artists and thinkers to hold discussions and distribute anti-regime writings.

In light of this long-standing tension between the Church and communism, Pope Francis’s aggressively anti-capitalist posture seems all the more remarkable.  The bishop of Rome hasn't just condemned what he sees as a failed free-market—he'a condemned the ethic and ideology that underlie free-market economies. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase,” Francis writes. “In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."

This is more than just a lecture about ethics; it’s a statement about who should control financial markets. At least right now, Francis says, the global economy needs more government control—an argument that would have been unthinkable for the pope just 50 years ago. He writes:

It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few… Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

“A new tyranny,” indeed. Clearly, communism does not strike Francis as a significant ideological threat anymore, which is even more significant given his Argentine background. Even though leftist dictators have had an outsized influence on the politics and economics of Latin America in the last half-century, the pope seems to see a greater threat in the politics and economics of a different region: The United States and Europe.

In terms of “Church strategy,” so to speak, this target seems particularly significant. Over the past decade, Roman Catholic leaders in the United States have struggled with crisis after crisis, including numerous accusations of child abuse. In Europe, Catholic communities are seeing decreased church attendance and interest in pursuing the priesthood, especially following recent revelations in Ireland about cruelty toward children in Church-run schools and orphanages.

But Church affiliation has been growing farther south in Latin America and Africa. Significantly, these are regions with developing economies that have been hit especially hard by the global financial crises of the past half-decade. Perhaps this trend was part of the pope’s motivation. The places where the body of the Church is growing most quickly are also where most the world’s poorest people live—people who are victims of free-market capitalism, Francis says.

The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.

The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

In part, Francis may be channeling widespread frustration among his flock. Youth unemployment is at 40 percent in Italy and 56 percent in Spain—two of Europe’s most Catholic countries. Although Greece is not a predominantly Roman Catholic country, it continues to be a symbol of broader unrest over European economic policies like austerity. Francis’s harsh words seem to capture this spirit of protest against the dominant economic order.

But they also indicate something important about the shift away from U.S. and European-style capitalism in geopolitics. The pope’s statements mark a bold ideological realignment for the Church, which has historically been physically, spiritually, and ideologically centered in Rome. In pitting the Church against the free-market, the pope has added significant heft and legitimacy to progressive, pro-government groups on the left. If it wasn’t already clear, the pronouncements confirm that the Church’s 20th-century specters are fading, at least in the Vatican. The pope has officially declared a new enemy.