Pope Francis' recent comments on capitalism fall well within the tradition of Catholic social teaching.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he notes that "the current financial crisis... originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols." He warns us of "ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace.... They reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born."
John Paul II, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, asked, "Is [capitalism] the model which ought to be proposed?" He explains: "The answer is obviously complex. If by 'capitalism' is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative.... But if by 'capitalism' is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative."
This distinction is subtle but essential: the Church affirms a free market economy as a means of meeting human needs which accords with the dignity, autonomy, and responsibility of the individual. But the Church also insists that the economy must be subordinate to the moral law and that profit must never become an idol, something of greater importance than God or our fellow man.
Pope Francis simply follows the Second Vatican Council, which observed that "man is the source, the center, and the purpose of all economic and social life." The Council warned that "whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions... as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed." Likewise, the Catechism anticipates Pope Francis' critique: "A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects." Or, as our Lord Himself succinctly put it: "You cannot serve God and mammon."
Two final caveats may be in order. First, I initially intended to include mention of Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum, but figured the letter was already long enough and most contemporary Catholics would ask, "Leo who?" Second, I have not read Evangelii Gaudium in its entirety, nor do I profess to be knowledgeable of all Pope Francis' writings and deeds regarding all topics. But I am struck by how often both his critics and supporters paint him as novel, while on this - and a handful of other topics about which I know a little - he is well rooted in the tradition. The pope, Catholic? Who would have guessed?