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A financial crisis may not seem like a good moment to be defending the market economy. Indeed, various Anglican Church leaders have spoken out strongly against what they see as unregulated financial markets in the wake of the financial crash. Sometimes, however, we can jump to hasty conclusions when we are amid a crisis. After all, the causes of the Great Depression were not properly understood until well over 30 years after the event.

Although it is important for Christian perspectives on economic matters to be placed in the context of the signs of the times, there are enduring principles and strands of analysis that need discussion and that should always be kept in mind by those commenting on specific events. This article examines the general perspective that Catholic social teaching takes on socialism and capitalism.

Socialism certainly gets a rough ride in papal writings. It starts with Pius IX (1792-1878), who argued that socialists misapply the terms "liberty" and "equality" and are preparing people for "plundering, stealing and usurping first the Church's and then everyone's property". He then described socialism as a pestilence. A little later, in 1891, Leo XIII described the effects of socialism thus: "The door would be thrown open to envy, to mutual invective and to discord. The sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry. And that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation." Some may see this as having come true in many contexts, particularly in the former communist economies.

John Paul II's critique of socialism strikes a similar chord. He examines socialism in the context of the God-given nature of man and argues in his evangelical Centesimus annus (1991) that the fundamental error of socialism is to "treat the individual person simply as a molecule within the social organism, denying man his free choice and the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil".

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