The antagonism between Catholicism and capitalism is as old as the Church itself. The Cold War obscured this fact as long as the Vatican viewed Communism as a bigger threat than the profit motive. One threat dead, Pope Francis has restored the Church's mission as capitalism's chief critic.
This isn't going over so well in some circles. Many members of the church hierarchy view Francis's rehabilitation of Latin American clergy who spread liberation theology as a dangerous sop to the pseudo-Marxist Bolivarian regimes of his native South America.
In the United States, where the favoured candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is a convert to Catholicism, the Pope's critique of capitalism is creating awkward inconveniences for a party that relies on a coalition of religious faithful and free marketeers to win elections.
Francis's newest encyclical on climate change, which casts the fight against global warming as a spiritual as well as environmental imperative, is a clear attempt to put the Vatican's moral weight behind a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases. As such, it is generating political waves that exceed those of perhaps every papal pronouncement since Humanae Vitae banned the pill.
"It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been," Francis writes in Laudato Si (Praise Be to You), whose subtitle is On Care for our Common Home. "The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected."
Many of those who are now cheering Francis's intrusion into the political realm, summoning Prime Minister Stephen Harper to heed the Pope, would be quick warn the Church to mind its own business when it comes defining reproductive rights. Their sudden conversion to the merits of papal encyclicals smacks of cafeteria Catholicism, if not crass political opportunism.
My own takeaway from Laudato Si is that Francis makes powerful points about the emptiness and spiritual destructiveness of the rampant consumerism that underpins modern culture. His critique of our "use and throw away" lifestyles should make us ask ourselves how badly we need to buy a new anything.
Francis rightfully denounces corporations that exploit the poor, usurp their land and ruin their health. He reminds us that the poor South will bear the brunt of the global warming brought on by the rich North, and hence, that rich countries have an "ecological debt" on their books.
But for all his toying with modernity on issues such sexuality and divorce, Francis shows how little official Catholic thinking has evolved on economics.
Centuries ago, the Protestant countries of Europe demonstrated that capitalism and Christianity are not only not incompatible, but mutually reinforcing as work and self-improvement were extolled as a sacred endeavours. Their Catholic neighbours stayed poor and backward, though their clergy and aristocracy certainly lived well.
It is ironic that Francis puts so much faith in the science of global warming, but so little in the ability of science to solve it. He sees modern technology as a threat to humankind, not a potential liberator. "The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings," Francis laments.
Francis worries that the "idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology … is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit." Yet, nothing allocates scarce resources more efficiently than the price mechanism.
In recent decades, capitalism has reproduced its development model on a global scale, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of destitution. Its organizing principles have repeatedly shown themselves to the most effective humankind has yet discovered to lift standards of living. Yet, Francis sees only capitalism's warts, not the human ingenuity that flourishes under it.
Still, if the pope won't tell us to stay humble, then who will?
"Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age," Francis reminds us in Laudato, "but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur."