Pope Francis on economics: How innovative? How savvy?

JIM ASKS:

Conservative commentators ridiculed [Pope Francis's decree Evangelii Gaudium] for its criticism of the free market system. But how different, really, is Francis’s thinking from his predecessors?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The Catholic Church is experiencing Hurricane Francis, the early phase of what may become the most liberal pontificate in a half-century. The new pope’s eyebrow-raisers including his words on economics. An April 28 Twitter feed from Francis (or his handlers) said “iniquitas radix malorum,” (“inequality is the root of evil” — or should that first word be translated “injustice”?). David Gibson of Religion News Service says some wonder whether the Vicar of Christ is “playing into the hands of President Obama and the Democrats, who have also made the wealth gap a major talking point” in the 2014 campaign.

The papal tweet followed the November text Jim asks about. Francis declared, among other things: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

There’s broad continuity between Francis and the prior popes in warning against greed and materialism, insisting that moral concerns must control money-making, and mandating concern for ordinary workers, their families, and those mired in poverty. But what economic setup best helps the dispossessed? On that, various Catholic conservatives have fretted that the Argentine pontiff’s views are “highly partisan and biased,” or “inaccurate and even irresponsible.”


It’s important that Evangelii is a preaching document or “apostolic exhortation,” as opposed to an “encyclical,” the highest-level papal pronouncement to carefully define official teaching on a single theme. Francis’s headline-grabbing economic comments were a minor aspect of a verbose text (47,600 words in English translation) that bounced among numerous topics.

Modern popes have issued a series of “social encyclicals” beginning with Leo XIII’s groundbreaking Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) in 1891. Leo applied perennial Christian concern for low-income families in a new era of industrial development. He fervently supported private property rights over against socialism, championed workers’ moral claim to a living wage, and endorsed trade unions to negotiate fair labor conditions.

Subsequent social encyclicals that focused on economics have been Quadregesimo Anno (by Pius XI, 1931), Populorum Progressio (Paul VI, 1967), Laborem Exercens (John Paul II, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (John Paul II, 1987), Centesimus Annus (John Paul II, 1991), and Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVI, 2009). The third encyclical from John Paul (who was canonized a saint the day before Francis’s “iniquitas” tweet) merits special attention since it marked both the centennial of Leo’s first social encyclical and the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Francis’s Evangelii had only one citation from Centesimus and that had nothing to do with economics.

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