Colleen Carroll Campbell Home
God and mammon

The New York Times
Room for Debate
June 25, 2014
By Colleen Carroll Campbell

Q: Has contemporary American capitalism become incompatible with Christian values?

The search for an economic system that perfectly reflects Christian ideals in practice as well as theory is at least as old as Jesus’ warning about trying to serve both God and mammon. And it’s an equally frustrating task.

There are effective economic systems and ineffective ones; systems that contribute to human flourishing and ones that block that flourishing at nearly every turn. History has vindicated capitalism’s place in the former category, despite its flaws. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy, capitalism is the worst economic system – except for all the others.

In the Catholic tradition, no less an authority than Pope – now Saint – John Paul II wrote a 1991 encyclical calling the free-market system “the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.” John Paul used that official church document to reaffirm the right to private property, rule of law and freedom to exchange goods and services.

Yet John Paul also blasted markets without morals and condemned a “consumer society” that “reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.” His successor, Pope Francis, used his own apostolic exhortation last fall to criticize everything from “unbridled consumerism” and “trickle-down theories” to “the economy of exclusion and inequality” and “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace.” Francis drew enough heat in free-market circles to later clarify he’s not a Marxist. But no one would mistake him – or any other pope – for a libertarian.

Nor would Jesus fit that bill. True, he touted freedom – but freedom to do good, to love God and neighbor, to escape the prison of selfishness. Any economic policy that purports to reflect Christian ideals must begin with that understanding of authentic freedom, and with respect for the dignity of each human person created in God’s image.

Solidarity with the poor, defense of the weak, respect for the state’s legitimate, if limited, role in regulating markets and concern for the common good – these principles of Catholic social teaching don’t justify blanket condemnations of capitalism. But they remind believers that we can’t check our faith at the entrance to the marketplace. A faith that fails to influence how we earn and spend money and which policies we support hardly deserves the name.

Christians must constantly wrestle with the tension of worshipping a God who became poor while living in a culture where money talks. As soon as we believe we’ve found a way to escape that tension – by uncritically embracing the excesses of capitalism or by scapegoating it for all our personal and social sins – we can be fairly sure we’ve found an idol instead.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a journalist, former presidential speechwriter and author, most recently, of “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir.”

Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. Her books include her critically acclaimed journalistic study, The New Faithful, and her award-winning spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, which has been published in Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and as an audiobook. Colleen's journalism credits include contributions to the New York Times, Washington Post, Christianity Today, First Things and America, and appearances on CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABC News, PBS and NPR. She has served as executive producer and anchor of EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell, a television newscast airing worldwide on EWTN, the world’s largest religious media network, and as creator and host of EWTN’s Faith & Culture television and radio interview show. In 2013, she anchored EWTN’s live television coverage of the historic election and installation of Pope Francis in Rome. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and editorial writer and op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Colleen is the recipient of two honorary doctorates and numerous other awards for her work. She serves as a religious liberty consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and speaks to audiences across North America and Europe. Colleen lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children, whom she homeschools. Her website is

    Click here to find out more about Colleen Carroll Campbell