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posted: 12/12/2013 5:00 AM

The gospel according to JCPenney

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One of the unpleasant side effects of modern medicine -- experienced during a recent convalescence -- is the omnipresence of television. Its controls are built into your hospital bed, just beside the nurse's call button. The screen hovers over your head like an IV -- drip, drip, drip -- distracting, anesthetizing.

This prolonged exposure served to demonstrate how different the holiday shopping season is from the season of Advent. By tradition, Advent is a time of quiet waiting and reflection, looking forward to a fulfillment we can't cause or hasten. It culminates in a pregnant teenager saying: "Be it to me according to your word."

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The shopping season -- as evidenced by loud, repetitive commercials -- is all about seizing the objects of our desires. Christmas songs are turned into commercial jingles. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" in the gospel according to JCPenney, becomes, "Do you see what Liz sees? A jacket, a skirt, and peep-toe shoes. She'll be rocking the peep-toe shoes."

A philosophy that finds meaning in consumption is so common as to be hardly noticeable. But Pope Francis has noticed. In his recent, rambling, rambunctious apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," he (among many other points) criticizes "a deified market," and "a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power." He is particularly tough on ideologies that assume economic growth is a sufficient social goal and that would deny to governments an active role in humanizing free markets.

Some American conservatives -- issuing a different sort of papal bull -- have accused the pope of "pure Marxism" and being "the Catholic Church's Obama." In the process, they are demonstrating how ideology can become a consuming substitute for faith.

Defenders of market economics -- and I count myself one -- should recognize that global capitalism is the most powerful force of modernity, with a mixed influence on traditional ideals and institutions. It has taken hundreds of millions out of poverty; it has also encouraged individualism and loosened bonds of family and community. It has produced innovation and extended lives. But in the absence of certain social conditions -- the rule of law, equal opportunity, effective public administration -- capitalism can result in caste-like inequality.

As my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. points out, the first pope from the global south naturally has a more skeptical take on globalization. He empathizes with the marginalized: exploited migrants, bonded laborers, people in sexual slavery. This is the dark side of markets -- the sale of life and dignity. And Francis vividly warns against the "globalization of indifference."

The pope is hardly a neo-Marxist. He talks of business as "a noble vocation." He rejects a "welfare mentality." But he argues that market outcomes are not always identical to social justice and calls for public "investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life."

Those surprised that Catholic social thought is incompatible with libertarianism haven't been paying attention -- for decades. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI said the same. And all warned of the danger when a mode of economic exchange becomes a mindset. Absent a moral commitment to human dignity, justice and compassion, capitalism is conducive to materialism, individualism and selfishness. It is a system that depends on virtues it does not create.

In "The Joy of the Gospel," Francis returns to the defining theme of his papacy: the priority of the person. Human beings have an essential value and nature. They can't be reduced to economic objects or to the sum of their desires. "We do not live better," he says, "when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide."

The pope contends that individualism can dull us to the requirements of justice, and that prosperity can be a prison. In making this case, Francis is demonstrating that Christian faith is not an ideology; it stands in judgment of all ideologies, including the ones we justify in the name of freedom.

This should not be surprising during Advent, given the revolution that arrived, unexpectedly, among the poor and humble. Nothing said by Francis is more radical than the words of that teenage girl: "He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty."

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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