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.” UPDATING May 8: In a talk to U.N. officials Francis called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state.”

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. The two popes agree on many points, but early indications from Francis suggest he’d have a lively private debate with John Paul. Life experiences doubtless affected their outlooks. John Paul’s Poland was crippled by Communism’s harsh oppression in economics (and everything else), while Francis certainly laments the privation in Argentina due to decades of economic stagnation and instability.

A pope from Poland would have been expected to dance on Marx’s grave. Instead, Centesimus was carefully balanced. John Paul sounded almost Francis-can in warning against any “radical capitalist ideology” that “blindly entrusts (the) solution to the free development of market forces.” But he also stated flatly that “the Marxist solution has failed” and that this removes a major obstacle to economic realism. John Paul upheld capitalism if it “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,” all fostered by democracy and the reliable rule of law.

John Paul was understandably nervous about centralized power. He believed the state’s proper task is to assure individual freedoms, private property rights, a stable currency, efficient public services, and sustenance of business in order to provide jobs. He said government could intervene in the economy, but only briefly and in “exceptional cases” where business is “not equal to the task.”

His German colleague and successor, Pope Benedict, is fonder toward central planning. His 2009 encyclical advocated some sort of “world political authority” to aid the poor, and said “the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice.” That ideal sounded (again) like doctrine from the U.S. and West European Left, but Benedict’s social idealism lacked guidance on which power-brokers should use what mechanisms to remove how much wealth from which citizens and redirect it by what criteria.

The most interesting analysis of Francis to date comes from U.S. lay theologian Michael Novak, a youthful socialist turned defender of free markets as moral. He notes that Argentina began the 20th Century among the world’s top 15 nations economically. But then it fell into “destructive” populism, brutal government power over the economy, favoritism, unstable law, ruinous inflation, and resulting lack of opportunity for the poor to rise. Novak figures Francis has yet to grasp that his Argentina is “not yet capitalist, in invention and enterprise.”

These are mere glimpses. The Guy confesses that an adequate answer to Jim would require thorough assessment of all the above texts, and much more. In other words, a doctoral dissertation. See what you make of these papal pronouncements:

John Paul in 1991:

www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html

Benedict in 2009:

www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html

Francis in 2013:

www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html

ADDED NOTE — Happy anniversary to www.patheos.com, which began hosting lively interfaith opinions on May 5 five years ago and added this journalistic “Religion Q and A” blog three and a half years later.

 

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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