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Pope Francis challenges the free market

April 19, 2014: 10:21 AM ET
Pope Francis Good Friday

Pope Francis leads a Good Friday service on April 18, 2014.

Pope Francis was not as overt in calling out the greedy in his 2014 Easter message as he was last year.

He focused mainly on calls for peace and an end to pressing conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. But even this year, he wove in some commentary on the world economy.

"Help us to overcome the scourge of hunger, aggravated by conflicts and by the immense wastefulness for which we are often responsible," he said. He went on to mention diseases like Ebola that are "spread by neglect and dire poverty."

Pope Francis stunned the world last Easter when he broke with the usual Holy Week traditions.

He washed the feet of women and two Muslims and delivered an Easter day message calling for not just the usual world peace, but "peace in the whole world, still divided by greed looking for easy gain."

At that point Francis was mere weeks into his tenure as head of the Catholic Church, but these were early signs of what has become a central theme in his papacy: fighting inequality.

He doesn't just call on people to help the poor, he often calls out the current economic world order.

He has spoken out against the evils of "slavery of profit at all costs" and the "scandal of poverty".

In a speech on January 1, Francis listed "access to capital" as a human right as fundamental as education and healthcare.

The papal focus on finance has led some to refer to it as "Vatican economics," "Franciscanomics" or simply Pope Francis' economic doctrine.

Francis clearly sees huge flaws in the system that mostly benefits those at the very top of the wealth and power ladder.

What isn't clear is whether the Pope is a capitalist, socialist or something in between.

"I don't think he sees himself as a capitalist," says Dr. Alejandro Chafuen, a Catholic scholar and president of the Atlas Network. "The Pope doesn't see himself in the camp of those who run the world economy."

In November, shortly before Francis was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year, the Pope gave arguably his most forceful economic themed address to date.

It had sections titled "No to an economy of exclusion," "No to the new idolatry of money," and "No to the financial system which rules rather than serves."

"We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose," the Pope wrote.

Related: Pope Francis' Greatest Hits of 2013

He went on to critique how the current system has shifted the focus from people to things. 

"The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption," Francis said.

It's important to view Pope Francis as a product of Peronist Argentina, Chafuen argues. As Francis was serving in various posts in Buenos Aires, he saw first hand the government corruption that prevented much of the country from prospering.

Chafuen thinks the Pope supports a "Third Way," something between the free market and Marxism.

But plenty of Pope watchers see more of a capitalist in Francis.

"He's merely calling for a market economy that does a better job at allowing all people to participate," says Gerald Beyer, an associate professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.

Beyer thinks Francis is continuing the message of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, who were clear that the free market economy is better than socialism at helping to promote human welfare even though they criticized it at times.

A big part of Francis' appeal is that he lives his message in many ways. He doesn't just challenge greed and excess verbally, he opts himself to live a simple life, including choosing not to live in the palace at the Vatican.

In a global economy still trying to get back on track after a major recession, the Pope's message and actions are resonating inside and outside the church.

As the Pope concludes the most important week in the Christian calendar, he is calling the free market gods to a higher power.

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Heather Long
Heather Long
Markets & Investing Editor, CNNMoney

Heather Long is markets and investing editor for CNNMoney. She was formerly an assistant editor at The Guardian and an editor at The Patriot-News, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. She started her career at the investment consulting firm Cambridge Associates and is a Rhodes Scholar. Follow her on Twitter @byHeatherLong

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