Pope Francis reiterates Catholic condemnation of economic liberalism – and causes heartburn in America

Pope Francis reiterates Catholic condemnation of economic liberalism – and causes heartburn in America December 16, 2013

A couple of months back, Francis Rooney – former US ambassador to the Vatican – gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. It was a pretty humdrum affair, until the end, when somebody asked him if Pope Francis and his predecessors would be Republicans or Democrats in the American context. This was clearly a ludicrous question, and – especially for a diplomat like Rooney – easy to brush off.

But he didn’t brush it off. Instead, he gave this amazing response:  “Because of their [the popes’] true belief in the dignity of humans, and their true belief in the inalienable rights of man, and their belief in private property, that they would have to be Republicans”.

This answer suggests many things, including insularity and tone deafness. More fundamentally, it suggests a complete misunderstanding of the tenor of Catholic social teaching, especially as enunciated by the Church over the past hundred years or more. It reflects a complete lack of attention to the key emphasis of Pope Francis’ papacy – concern for the poor, at both the personal and the institutional levels.

For those of Rooney’s persuasion who are paying attention, they don’t like what they hear. We should certainly pay no heed to libertines with lax morals like Rush Limbaugh, but plenty of Catholics who pride themselves on their orthodoxy are taking issue with what this pope is saying. They hold him to be well meaning, but just a little out of his depth. Somewhat patronizingly, they claim he is the product of Argentina, an economic basket case, and has not been yet been enlightened by gnosis of the American economic system!

What these critics forget is that Francis is saying nothing new. In response to this very American criticism of Evangelii Gaudium, the pope has said this himself. When the document touches on Catholic social teaching, it does so in a highly traditional manner.

Consistent Catholic teaching against libertarianism

Francis’ traditional in the following manner: Since the dawn of modern Catholic social teaching, popes have been punching communism with one hand and libertarianism with the other. Catholic social teaching is simply incompatible with the basic tenets of libertarianism – the supremacy of economic freedom and individual autonomy, the virtue embedded in free exchange and market-based contracts, a government whose only role is that of referee on the sidelines.

Right from the beginning, Leo XIII challenged these views with vigor, because he saw clearly that market outcomes too often represented and imbalance in economic power that worked against social harmony. Especially in the context of labor markets, he claimed that letting wages be determined by the market could put workers at the mercy of the “callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition” so that they could become “victims of force and injustice”. This flows from a concept of justice “more imperious and ancient” than simple free consent in the marketplace.

Pius XI took this even further, referring to the two errors of communism and libertarianism as the “twin rocks of shipwreck”. He went on to lay down one of the most direct condemnations of liberal economic thinking ever made by a pope:  “The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching…free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Pope John XIII is equally direct: “Unrestricted competition in the liberal sense, and the Marxist creed of class warfare; are clearly contrary to Christian teaching and the nature of man”. For John, distributive justice was paramount, and he argued that a just distribution of resources actually mattered more than accumulation of wealth itself. 

Paul VI also had some choice words against liberalism/ libertarianism. He condemned the idea of “profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations”.

Like his predecessors, Paul also noted that the Christian cannot adhere to either the Marxist ideology or the liberal ideology that “exalts individual freedom by withdrawing it from every limitation, by stimulating it through exclusive seeking of interest and power, and by considering social solidarities as more or less automatic consequences of individual initiatives, not as an aim and a major criterion of the value of the social organization”.

In a similar vein, Paul read the sign of the times: “we are witnessing a renewal of the liberal ideology. This current asserts itself both in the name of economic efficiency, and for the defense of the individual against the increasingly overwhelming hold of organizations, and as a reaction against the totalitarian tendencies of political powers. .. at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.” Again, this is crystal clear.

In recent years, Benedict XVI railed against the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and lambasted the economic and financial system that led to the crisis. Just last year, he noted that: “It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism”. But while Francis makes the front pages for statements like these, Benedict was roundly ignored.

The bottom line is clear: when Francis condemns an economy of exclusion, an idolatry of money, and rampant inequality, he is reflecting orthodox Catholic social teaching, and applying it to modern circumstances. In other words, he is doing what all popes before him did. His approach to Catholic social teaching is ultra-orthodox and ultra-traditional.

In particular, Francis is following in the footsteps of his predecessors with a stern and passionate condemnation of libertarianism, in words that have now become famous: “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… While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

The “Francis problem” for the Amerirican right

So if it’s just more of the same, why all the attention? Why all the tortured hair pulling from the American right? I believe the answer is simple. While the substance of what Francis is saying is the similar to his predecessors, both his tone and his emphasis are different, sometimes substantially so.

For one thing, he is speaking in the kind of passionate prophetic language that has been out of fashion in recent years. This is true among Church leaders, but also among secular leaders – how many public figures talk like Martin Luther King these days?  

And then there is the issue of emphasis. Economic justice and the preferential option for the poor are central tenets of Francis’ papacy. Nobody can possibly ignore or downplay this. While Benedict would surely agree with everything Francis has to say, his priorities were clearly elsewhere – on the relationship between faith and reason, and dialogue with the secular culture, for example.

The media do not help either. They have their fixed narratives of Francis and Benedict. When Benedict spoke about economic injustice, they paid no attention, because it did not fit their preconceived stereotypes of who he was. But when Francis speaks on such issues, it fits into their narrative of him as more progressive than his predecessors, even if –in substance – he is not saying anything different.

Somewhat ironically, he is actually harking back to a more traditional papal approach to matters of economics and economic justice. Just as Benedict loved traditional liturgy, Francis loves traditional Catholic social teaching!

All of this explains the indigestion of so many on the American right. Until now, many of these Catholics had formed their own narrative of the modern papacy, a narrative perfectly encapsulated by Francis Rooney’s unfortunate answer to an unfortunate question at the AEI event.

The narrative goes something like this: John Paul II formed a strategic alliance with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher against communism. Together, they assured the defeat of totalitarianism and the ascent of liberty, both economic and religious. This liberty is given is fullest form in free markets and a limited role for the state. It guarantees a respect for human dignity, assures economic prosperity, and provides the space for individual initiative. Of course, freedom is defined solely in its negative, Lockean, sense.

A number of Catholic intellectuals tried to put a theological gloss on this narrative – people like Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus. When Neuhaus died, he was replaced in the neoconservative triumvirate by another cleric, Robert Sirico, and his Acton Institute with its bottomless coffers.

A key hypothesis of this group was that John Paul II had repudiated much of prior Catholic social teaching, especially in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, which fully blessed the free market system. Of course, any honest reading of this encyclical would show that it is perfectly in accord with past teaching. Plus, if John Paul had really repudiated the past, then must also have repudiated much of his own prior writings!

These people enjoyed a great deal of success and persuaded a lot of people. They owed much of their success to a changing Catholic culture. American Catholics became more and more integrated with the dominant Protestant mindset, underpinned by a Lockean individualist spirit and a Calvinist approach to economics that elevated the virtue of individual responsibility. The generation of John A. Ryan had become the generation of Paul Ryan.

Still, their success was really quite a remarkable feat, in light of the crystal clear teachings against this very form of liberalism they now espoused. In many respects, it was a con job, and an audacious one at that. They simply wrote off a huge chunk of Catholic social teaching, following in the footsteps of one of their gurus, William F. Buckley, who rejected explicitly the social teaching of John XXIII. They published an edited version of Centesimus Annus that left out the problematic parts. They attempted to completely obliterate the idea of distributive justice – a core concept going all the way back to Aristotle – from the collective Catholic memory.

Somewhat ironically, this group donned the mantle of orthodoxy, and stood stridently against those they regarded as dissidents. They became eager participants in the evangelicals’ culture war. What mattered were the hot-button issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty – coincidentally, the issues that mattered most to their allies on the evangelical and Republican right!

They always claimed that the pope – whether John Paul or Benedict – was aligned with them on the major issues, and that good Catholics could safely ignore the outdated socialist outpourings of some bishops conferences and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. They counted a good number of bishops in their camp. And they made sure that their efforts were well funded by a wealthy donor base with its own selfish interests in mind.

Of course, they were also helped by a feeble left that actually mirrored their libertarianism – caring more about individual rights in the sexual sphere than traditional norms of distributive and social justice. This was a left that had truly lost its way, and proved incapable – until relatively recently, anyway – of challenging the dominant narrative of the liberal right. 

Against this backdrop, Francis Rooney’s statement is not so extravagant:  the pope, you see, is clearly a Republican.

But then Francis came along. With Francis, this whole house of cards came tumbling down. The con was exposed. These Catholics could no longer ignore and dismiss the inconvenient truths of Catholic social teaching, as Francis has pushed these truths right to the center of his pontificate.

This is giving them real heartburn, for which there is only one form of lasting relief – the refreshing waters of real Catholic social teaching. The time has come for the American Catholic libertarians to be what they have always claimed to be – orthodox and traditional. In other words, less American and more Catholic.

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