Pope Francis doesn’t have to thank capitalism, a system that has done far more to alleviate poverty, his pet crusade, than the institution he leads. But he should at least stop demonizing it—not least because it enables the very activity that he cherishes most: charity.
Poverty is the default condition of humanity. It is the given. What needs explaining is wealth. And the greatest engine of wealth creation is the market. By raising productivity and lowering the price of goods, markets certainly help the rich, but they help the poor more. Capitalism’s most impressive achievement, Joseph Schumpeter noted, was not providing more silk stockings for the Queen, “but in bringing them within reach of factory girls.”
Indeed, far from promoting Social Darwinism that thrives on “the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” as the Pope claimed, capitalism does the opposite: It fosters economic competition among producers so that consumers don't have to compete for scarce goods. In 1900, it took an average worker in the West about an hour to earn a half a gallon of milk. In 1930, half an hour. And today? Scarcely a few minutes.
It is no exaggeration to say that charity is a balm for poverty but capitalism is the cure—or in Bono’s evocative mixed metaphor capitalism’s “job creators and innovators are the key, and aid is just a bridge."
The church itself is a big beneficiary of this capitalist largesse with its U.S. wing alone contributing 60 percent to its overall global wealth. Some of this money comes from donations, but a big chunk comes, actually, from directly partaking in capitalism: The church is reportedly the largest landowner in Manhattan, the financial center of the global capitalism system, whose income puts undisclosed sums into its coffers.
So the new Pope needs to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds his institution and its work. Otherwise, neither he nor the poor in whose name he is speaking will have much to be thankful for.