Catholics, Conservatives and Capitalism

By Peter Montgomery

Public Eye Spring 2015 CoverNOTE: This article is a sidebar to Peter Montgomery’s 2015 article in The Public Eye magazine, Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire MandateRead that full article here.

It’s not only Christian Reconstructionists and conservative evangelicals working to give right-wing economic policies a religious grounding. Catholic writer Michael Novak, formerly ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism back in 1982. Thirty years later, Rep. Paul Ryan defended the massive social spending cuts in his proposed budget in 20121 as a reflection of Catholic principles—a claim vigorously challenged by Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the national Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK,2 who continues to oppose Ryan’s approach to poverty and his interpretation of Catholic social justice teachings.

Writing for Political Research Associates in 2008, Frank L. Cocozzelli challenged neoconservative Catholic “proponents of a buccaneer capitalism that exploits the poorest people of God—an idea profoundly at odds with Catholic social teaching for more than a century.”3 Cocozzelli said Novak’s books “present a highly tortured version of the Roman Catholic concept of social justice.” Catholic neocons, he wrote, are more neocon than Catholic.

More recently, Catholic conservatives have wrung their hands over the language Pope Francis and some other bishops have used to critique the damaging and dehumanizing excesses of modern corporate capitalism.4 In April 2014, after the Pope famously tweeted,5 “Inequality is the root of social evil,” conservatives were distraught.6 David Gibson collected some of the reactions at Religion News Service.7

“Seriously, though, what was up with that tweet by @Pontifex? Has he traded the writings of Peter and Paul for [French economist Thomas] Piketty?” tweeted Joe Carter of the Acton Institute, a Catholic-run, libertarian think tank.8 “Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil,” he added as a counterpoint.9

“So, if we achieve maximum redistribution of resources, we will have eliminated ‘social evil,’ whatever that is?” wrote Rod Dreher in a rather snarky post at The American Conservative.10 “Yes, and that’s why the Soviet Union was the Garden of Eden.”

Others suggested that Francis didn’t know what was going into his Twitter feed, prompting Vatican officials to note that the message was “taken directly from Francis’ blockbuster exhortation from last year, The Joy of the Gospel.”11,12 Gibson suggested that “many Christian conservatives, especially non-Catholics, are not intimately familiar with Catholic social teaching, which is what Francis was expounding.”13

Last summer, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York got some help14 from CNBC’s Larry Kudlow putting together an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal trying to smooth things over, suggesting that Francis was talking about corrupt Third-World capitalism, but not the principled kind practiced by New York’s financial class.15 Dolan wrote that “the answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control,” adding, “The church has consistently rejected coercive systems of socialism and collectivism, because they violate inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property.”

Fr. Drew Christiansen, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University, responded, “It wasn’t Argentinean populist economics, Eastern European crony capitalism, or African kleptocracy that threatened the world economy with the worst recession since the 1930s… It was no-holds-barred American capitalism that did that.”16 Christiansen continued:

“For generations, Catholic social teaching has understood and taught that improving the condition of the poor means holding inequality in check. Thanks be to God, that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have underscored that teaching in the most emphatic ways.

Unfortunately, too many well-to-do Catholics prefer getting their economic ethics from the Acton Institute rather than the Vatican.”

The Acton Institute is a Michigan-based think tank dedicated, according to its website, to “Integrating Judeo-Christian Truths with Free Market Principles.” According to SourceWatch, Acton has received millions from organizations connected to the Koch brothers.17 While Acton calls itself ecumenical, it was co-founded and is led by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, a formerly liberal18 Catholic priest who in 2012 wrote Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. Sirico and Acton promote libertarian economics19 and a conservative take on Catholic social justice teaching. In 2013, Acton’s research director, Samuel Gregg, published Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing.20

Along those lines, last fall conservative scholar Anthony Esolen published Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching: A Defense of the Church’s True Teachings on Marriage, Family, and the State,21 a book that promises to “[pull] back the curtain” on the “false philosophers” of Catholic social justice advocates.

Inside, Esolen argues, “Catholic social teaching condemns the statist usurpation of the family, whether that usurpation is openly hostile or is cloaked in beneficence.” Esolen says charity is an individual’s duty that cannot be passed off to others, that businesses should pay a fair wage, and workers should provide work of value, but that this will be a result of virtuous people, not “State control.” He denounces “the cancerous Metastate,” which he says damages families and the ability of people to govern themselves according to the Ten Commandments.

Some conservatives fear the loss of independence that comes with Catholic agencies taking government funds to carry out social justice work. In a March 2015 commentary, ChurchMilitant.TV host Michael Voris slammed “the abuse of the church’s beautiful social teaching to advance the political aims of the church’s enemies.”22 Voris denounced Catholic social welfare agencies for taking government funds to carry out their work. “The church in America is up to its miters in government entanglements owing to its having taken taxpayer money,” he said. Bishops “have crawled into bed with low-life, evil politicians to get their cash, so they can ostensibly go out and fulfill the church’s mission to help the poor.”

In November, Catholic libertarians and philanthropists John and Carol Saeman wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled “Pope Francis, the Kochs, and How the Wealthy Can Help the Poor.”23 The Saemans, contributors to the Kochs’ political networks,24 repeated the claim that limited-government, free-market policies align with Catholic teachings about the common good. Meanwhile, the Koch brothers are continuing to invest in Catholic institutions. In January, the Charles Koch Foundation announced a grant of $1.75 million to the Catholic University of America,25 which came a year after a controversial $1 million Koch grant for CUA to launch a business school.26

End Notes

1 Corrie Mitchell (2013). “Sister Simone Campbell, Rep. Paul Ryan differ at “war on poverty” hearing.” U.S. Catholic. Online at

2 (2014). “Simone Campbell, SSS.” NETWORK. Online at

3 Frank Cocozzelli (2008). “Refuting the Myths of Neoconservative Roman Catholic Economics.” Political Research Associates. Online at

4 David Gibson (2014). “Catholic and libertarian? Pope’s top advisor says they’re incompatible.” Religion News Service. Online at

5 Pope Francis, Twitter post, April 28, 2014, 1:28 a.m. Online at

6 David Gibson (2014). “ANALYSIS: Conservatives Squawk over Pope’s tweet on inequality.” Religious News Service. Online at

7 Ibid.

8 Joe Carter, Twitter post, April 28, 2014, 9:20 a.m. Online at

9 Joe Carter, Twitter post, April 28, 2014, 9:25 a.m. Online at

10 Rod Dreher (2014). “The Egalitarian Pope Francis.” The American Conservative. Online at

11 David Gibson (2014). “ANALYSIS: Conservatives Squawk over Pope’s tweet on inequality.” Religious News Service. Online at

12 “Evangelii Gaudium : Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (24 November 2013).” Evangelii Gaudium : Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (24 November 2013). Accessed April 17, 2015.

13 David Gibson (2014). “ANALYSIS: Conservatives Squawk over Pope’s tweet on inequality.” Religious News Service. Online at

14 Thomas Reese (2014). “Theologans critique Cardinal Dolan’s defense of capitalism.” National Catholic Reporter. Online at

15 Timothy Dolan (2014). “The Pope’s Case for Virtuous Capitalism.” The Wall Street Journal. Online at

16 Thomas Reese (2014). “Theologans critique Cardinal Dolan’s defense of capitalism.” National Catholic Reporter. Online at

17 (2015). “Acton Institute.” Source Watch. Online at

18 Michael Sean Winters (2010). “Fr. Robert Sirico on gay marriages he once performed.” National Catholic Reporter. Online at

19 Winters, Michael Sean. (2013). “MSW v. Sirico: Part 1.” National Catholic Reporter. Online at  

20 (2013). “Tea Party Catholic: Connecting Religious Liberty and Economic Freedom.” Acton Institute. Online at

21 “Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching.” Sophia Institute Press. Online at

22 Michael Voris (2015). ChurchMilitant.TV. Online at

23 Carol Saeman and John Saeman (2014). “Pope Francis, the Kochs, and how the wealthy can help the poor.” The Washington Post. Online at

24 Patrick Glennon (2014). “What Would the Koch Brothers Do? Religion and Libertarian Philanthropy.” Truthout. Online at

25 David Gibson (2015). “Controversial Koch Brothers give big (again) to Catholic University.” Religion News Service. Online at

26 David Gibson (2014). “More protests over Koch gift to Catholic University of America.” Religion News Service. Online at