Names Free Market Failures
It is a crucial statement at a historic moment. In his
final World Peace Day message of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II Jan. 1
declared free market capitalism unequal to the task of caring for the common
More, he has branded capitalism’s child, materialistic consumerism, an
evil in the same ranks as Marxism, Nazism and fascism.
Further, in an address that pulls on 20 years of his own social
encyclicals and uses human rights as its theme, John Paul condemned the
idolatry of self -- “the exaltation of the individual and the selfish
satisfaction of personal aspirations” as “the ultimate goal of life.”
And finally, using Lazarus at the gate to point the way, he
simultaneously warned and challenged all those “who take the gospel as the
pattern of your lives” to “recognize Christ in the poorest and most
The pontiff, whose tone was at times elegiac, at times softly persuasive,
addressed “certain specific rights particularly exposed to more-or-less open
violation today” and expanded throughout his 10-page address on the rights
to life, to religious freedom, to democratic participation, to
self-fulfillment, to employment and to peace.
In his address, “Respect for Human Rights: the Secret of True Peace,” the
pope again asserted, as does the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, that “all
human beings, without exception, are equal in dignity.”
Then he turned his attention to those institutions that, in economic
practice, compromise that dignity.
“The history of our time has shown in a tragic way the danger which
results from forgetting the truth about the human person. Before our eyes,
we have the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism and fascism, and
also the myths of racial superiority, nationalism and ethnic exclusivism.
“No less pernicious, though not always as obvious,” declared the pope,
“are the effects of materialistic consumerism in which the exaltation of the
individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the
ultimate goal of life.” In this outlook, the negative effects on others are
considered completely irrelevant.
Rather, countered John Paul, “no affront to human dignity can be ignored,
whatever its source.”
The pope is not blind to what actually transpires when the First World
Economic Club, in cahoots, meets in Group of 7 or World Trade Organization
or International Monetary Fund corridors and cocktail receptions.
“Nations and people have a right to share in the decisions which often
profoundly modify their way of life. The technical details of certain
economic problems give rise to the tendency to restrict discussions about
them to limited circles, with the consequent dangers that political and
financial power is concentrated in a small number of governments and special
John Paul noted that “the effects of recent economic and financial crises
have had heavy consequences for countless people reduced to conditions of
extreme poverty. Many of them had only just reached a position which allowed
them to look to the future with optimism.
“And how can we ignore the effects of fluctuations in the financial
markets? We urgently need a new vision of global progress in solidarity.”
The rapid advances toward “the globalization of economic and financial
systems illustrates the urgent need to establish who is responsible for
guaranteeing the global common good and the exercise of economic and social
rights. The free market by itself cannot do this,” he said, “because there
are many human needs which have no place in the market.”
Who are the guarantors? The pope turned to “people of goodwill” and those
who follow the gospel way.
Those of us in the United States who attempt to follow the gospel way,
however, can take no easy comfort from responding only to the final
challenge, for the pope addressed us -- all of us -- at every level of this
We are the world’s major beneficiaries of free market capitalism.
We are the materialistic consumers.
We are the ones sometimes wrestling, sometimes succumbing to the evil
lure of the exaltation of the individual and selfish satisfaction.
We are the rich man at the table.
Lazarus and his children have sewn the tablecloth in the sweatshops,
picked the vegetables and fruit and nuts we nibble as we talk, been paid 8
cents an hour to make the toys our children play with in the corner, slept
fitfully on the mud floors, eaten sparingly at the one meal and gazed
hopelessly at the sores no medicine will ever heal.
How we respond to those challenges is what the pope meant when he spoke
about us and the common good.
This is a fine time to talk about what it means to be Christian -- and
Pope John Paul II knows it and waits to see what we’ll do.
So does Lazarus. So does Jesus.
National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999