This from Rachel Lu addresses the issue thoughtfully:
Nevertheless, I believe we will find, if we can elevate ourselves above the fray of American politics, that Pope Francis’ message is mainly a moral one, and on that level, I am not in the least tempted to dissent. In his remarks on economics, he is taking to task a particular brand of libertarianism that sees the free market as the sole agent through which social and global justice can be attained. I am happy to join him in condemning that ideology, and in urging my fellow conservatives to move past it, embracing a more humane and holistic commitment to advancing the common good.
To get a sense for Pope Francis’ real message, let’s consider the controversial passage that Wendy Warcholick discussed in her recent Crisis piece. Here the Holy Father criticizes “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world” and decries “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” He goes on to lament the “globalization of indifference” that follows on this market-worship, as the obsession with material gain desensitizes us to the needs of the poor.
In response to these points, a number of conservative commentators have argued (in my estimation, persuasively) that no country in the world suffers from excessively free markets. As David Harsanyi points out at The Federalist, “People in places like Congo, Burundi, Eritrea, Malawi, or Mozambique live under corrupt authoritarian regimes where crippling poverty has a thousand fathers—none of them named capitalism. The people of Togo do not suffer in destitution because of some derivative scheme on Wall Street or the fallout from a tech IPO.”
I think Harsanyi and his fellow economic conservatives are basically right on this point. But are they responding directly to what the Holy Father actually said? Note that Pope Francis’ criticisms here are not mainly directed at actual existing policies. This supposedly explosive passage says nothing about the state of global finance per se. Instead, his criticism is directed at “some people” who think that social justice will follow inexorably from the flourishing of free trade. This is fairly consistent with his language throughout Evangelii Gaudium, which continually directs our attention to objectionable attitudes that are preventing us from entering sympathetically into the concerns of the poor.
In another controversial passage, Pope Francis contends that solutions to global poverty will necessarily require “rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” Again, one can draw some probable inferences about Pope Francis’ views on global finance, but his actual criticism is directed at attitudes, not policies. Seen in this light, I don’t find his criticisms problematic in the least. We should indeed reject any view that gives absolute autonomy to markets, which are relevant to certain elements of justice, but which nonetheless cannot be sensitive to all human needs.
Occasionally (as in passage no 204) the pontiff does hint at the possibility of top-down regulation as a likely corrective to global injustices. These references, however, are too vague to create real uneasiness except for a fairly hardened libertarian. The Holy Father calls for “decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes” that yield a “better” distribution of income globally. This is the kind of exhortation that could encompass almost any imaginable effort at addressing poverty, whether public or private. Only one approach is truly condemned: the approach whereby we do nothing at all for the poor, trusting market forces to resolve every injustice and meet every need.
A liberal critic might contend that I have now engaged in some fairly obtuse hair-splitting. By suggesting that the Holy Father’s criticisms are directed only at a fairly extreme ideological position, it may seem that I am illegitimately minimizing the impact of his message. And my interpretation may just seem implausible, given that the Holy Father is clearly criticizing attitudes that he regards as both pervasive and problematic in the world today. Hardened libertarians are a fairly rare breed, and they have had minimal success in their efforts to establish a largely-unregulated free market economy. It might seem strange for the pope to show such intense concern over a minority view.
Then again, it may not be strange at all. There are relatively few committed Marxists in the world today, and not many self-identify as moral relativists; nevertheless we understand why Church leaders have seen fit to address these ideological positions in recent years. Ideologies can have an impact on politics and culture that goes well beyond the ranks of those who formally adhere to them. Market-worshiping libertarians do exist, albeit not in great enough numbers to put us in any real danger of creating a Randian dystopia. But their priorities and prejudices are mirrored to a great extent by many more people than would explicitly identify with their agenda.
Outside Catholic circles, I find that it can be very difficult to engage political conservatives in a discussion of social justice or the common good. Because they are so deeply suspicious of large-scale government intervention, they tend to retreat into an atomistic individualism that swears by only two bedrock principles of justice: first, the need for a “colorblind” legal system, and second, entitlement of all people to participate in the free market. In fairness, most conservatives will stress the importance of private giving. But they often find it difficult to sustain a sophisticated conversation about the makeup of civic society or the importance of promoting the common good. The primary reason, I believe, is that political conservatives tend to regard individual liberties and the autonomy of the market as sacrosanct. I can identify the influence of a market-worshiping libertarianism in the arguments of American political conservatives.
There's much more, all of it meaty, all of it something likely necessitating more than a single read to understood fully.
There is seemingly a widening chasm between economic conservatives and faithful Catholics. Can it be bridged? I'd like to think the answer is yes. I'd like to.