The pope is neoliberalism's Enemy No. 1: How Francis challenges America's reigning (and bipartisan) orthodoxy

Francis has irked conservatives for years, but his speech today underscores that his challenge is far more radical

Published September 24, 2015 7:02PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Max Rossi)
(Reuters/Max Rossi)

Much of the commentary about the Pope’s speech before Congress today will focus on the right’s hysterical – and often hypocritical – overreaction. And that’s a good thing. At the very least, it shows how tenuous many conservatives’ religious commitments really are. But there’s a larger narrative in the Pope’s remarks that deserves coverage as well.

Pope Francis’s critique is aimed not just at conservatives or Republicans but virtually everyone else in Washington, too. The Pope has spent a lot of time talking about poverty and inequality and economic justice – these have become the central themes of his papacy. In 2013, for example, he wrote:

The worship of the ancient golden calf 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 care their imbalances and, above all, their lack of concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

What the Pope has criticized from the very beginning is capitalism, particularly neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the bedrock ideology of global laissez-faire capitalism; it’s an ideology of mass privatization, unfettered deregulation, corporate tax cuts, trade liberalization, and a near-total reduction in the role of government in social life. Neoliberalism has become the dominant economic orthodoxy of our time, with disastrous results for the planet. "The earth," Francis wrote in his encyclical, "is beginning to look a lot more like an immense pile of filth...The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty." And the truth is that both Republicans and corporatist Democrats are complicit in the ascendance of this exploitative system.

In today’s speech, the Pope doubled down on his moral critique of neoliberalism:

All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity… If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life…You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.

There’s nothing subtle about this message. The Pope is asking us to consider what “good” we are pursuing. And the answer is obvious: profit. The “chief aim” our political and economic system, judging by its outcome, is the accumulation of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people and at the expense of nearly everyone else. The massive income inequalities we’re seeing across the world did not happen accidently; it’s by design. When the Pope calls for a more “just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor,” this is what he’s talking about. This message may not resonate in the halls of Congress, but there’s no doubt that this is the message he’s delivering.

The Pope has rightly suggested that our economic ideology has, in fact, become our religion; money our God. Today he said:

We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.

I’m not a Catholic or even a Christian, and I have my issues with the Vatican, but this is a transcendent message. Capitalism as such is not the enemy; the pathological devotion to money is. Pope Francis says “politics must be at the service of the human person.” Maybe that’s naïve, maybe it’s not practical. Politics is about power as much as it is anything else - it will never produce a perfectly just society. Nevertheless, Pope Francis is right that the slavish fidelity to capital is a cancer at the core of our society.

Ultimately, the Pope suggests that our problem is cultural as much as it is ethical and political. It’s true that he’s not an economist or a political theorist. He doesn’t have the answers. Neither do I. But his moral critique of capitalism, given all the challenges we face right now, should resonate with everyone. And while his message about economic fairness may be directed in particular at Republicans, it ought to make corporatist Democrats uncomfortable, too.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Neoliberalism Neoliberals Pope Francis I Roman Catholic Church