Editorial: Pope Francis‘ mistrust of free markets

If Pope Francis ever visits Chicago — it‘s been nearly 40 years since Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Grant Park — his presence would be a major event that illuminates a small contradiction: Chicago, in one specific way, isn‘t the reigning pontiff‘s kind of town.

Chicago is a business center and global hub of the futures markets, but Pope Francis is intensely skeptical of markets, money and capitalism. This pope, who expresses deep concern for the poor and is known for his modest ways, is a fierce critic of free market economics, whose theories were nurtured and promoted by the University of Chicago.

Pope Francis‘ attacks on capitalism can be fiery. He has railed against “compulsive consumerism” and called the unfettered pursuit of money “the dung of the devil.” We‘ve heard his oratory previously, and we respectfully disagreed with the sweeping nature of the criticism. Why? Because the pope brushes aside how capitalism lifts so many of the world‘s people out of poverty. Now add to the litany a harsh new Vatican appraisal of western economics personally approved by Pope Francis.

A lengthy document released Thursday by the Roman Catholic Church goes into surprising detail in its takedown of business, competition, deregulation and the shareholder system. Concepts named and vilified in the paper include derivatives (a class of financial instrument that includes futures), credit default swaps and offshore banking. Debt securitization, a complex pool of assets that can be risky for investors, is a “ticking time bomb ready sooner or later to explode,” the paper says.

This Vatican treatise, which can be seen as the church‘s critique of the Great Recession, amounts to a papal warning that business, banking and trading are “profoundly amoral” or, worse, “of proximate immorality.” The document suggests that, from the trading floor to the boardroom, greed rules while ethical behavior is devalued: “The objective of mere profit easily creates a perverse and selective logic that often favors the advancement of business leaders who are capable, but greedy and unscrupulous, and whose relationship with others is prevalently driven by a selfish and personal gain.”

The Vatican‘s remedy is heightened morality and more government regulation. At stake, the document says, is the well-being of the majority of the world‘s population, which is “excluded and marginalized” while “a minority, indifferent to the condition of the majority, exploits and reserves for itself substantial resources and wealth.”

Our reaction is not to repudiate the pope but to offer a balancing assessment. The nature of capitalism, based on risk and reward, makes it imperfect: Opportunity doesn‘t guarantee success. Competition creates winners and losers. Also true: While many business leaders are ethical, some are not.

What‘s also certain is that capitalism incentivizes people to work, creates wealth and improves lives. The United Nations found in 2015 that the number of people living in extreme poverty had plunged by more than half, from 1.9 billion to 836 million, since 1990 — the era in which the Iron Curtain fell, capitalism invaded Eastern Europe, and China embraced free market principles.

Pope Francis‘ concerns are legitimate. We‘d just like to see his teachings focus more attention on the benefits of capitalism, not just the excesses.