Pope Francis’ Misunderstood Message on the Economy

shutterstock_165881825Some of what Pope Francis has said has prompted some understandable handwringing by conservatives. His comments on the economy in his new apostolic exhortation, however, should not.

To be sure, Francis has some less than flattering things to say about the global economy in the exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. He chastises us for allowing money to dominate our lives and our societies. He blames the current financial crisis on a failure to recognize the paramount dignity of the human person. And he accuses those who defend the absolute autonomy of the market of ushering in a new form of tyranny.

Conservative media, like a bull charging at a red cape, immediately cried socialism. A typical response was on the blog for Reason, a libertarian magazine, which, in turn, cited a June 2013 Economist report that the numbers of those living in extreme poverty around the world has dropped from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 1.2 billion in 2010.

One suspects this is precisely the sort of overly rationalistic calculating mindset at which Francis is taking aim: Has the global poverty rate dropped by 53 percent? Then by all means, ‘Hooray!’—as the header for a chart accompanying the Economist article actually stated. Never mind that 1.2 billion are still in extreme poverty. Indeed, as long as there are still poor with us (and Jesus said we would always have the poor), there will be plenty of room for Catholic charity and individual works of mercy. That there are more than a billion of them certainly seems to warrant the sort of passionate call to action that we get from Francis.

Of course, in fairness to the writers at Reason, their point in citing such statistics is that the poverty rate has declined because of the free market. They believe the free market is indispensable for the generation of wealth—and that it also distributes that wealth widely. They worry that Francis is mistaking the solution for the problem.

The socialist manifesto that wasn’t

But Francis, despite his tough words on capitalism, is not ignorant of the market’s role in wealth creation. Instead, he readily acknowledges it in two key lines that conservative writers conveniently overlooked: “The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good. …” Again: “Business is … a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

Francis does call for government action. But one searches the document in vain for where he specifies income tax rates for the top one percent. Or where he spells out the new reams of financial regulations urgently needed and lists the private industries governments must start taking over.

So what does he say about the role of government? Very little. “Government” is mentioned just four times in the 224-page document. “State” as a synonym for government also appears only four times. Here’s one example of what Francis urges state governments to do: “It is the responsibility of the State to safeguard and promote the common good of society.”

Now where does this radical notion that it’s the job of the state to “promote the common good” come from? None other than the official Catholic catechism itself—the one issued in 1992 at the behest of Pope John Paul II, whose anti-communist credentials are about as impeccable as they come. This basic principle can be traced back at least as far St. Thomas Aquinas, hardly a medieval Marxist. In the Summa Theologica, quoting St. Isidore of Seville, Aquinas wrote simply that the human laws should “further the common weal.”

Now, with the advent of the modern bureaucratic state, one could argue that we need to define the state role more explicitly and with greater limits, but the point is that Francis is hardly advocating some radical new principle—as if he was lending Marxist pablum the papal imprimatur.

Francis does elaborate a little on what he expects government to do in a statement that, when read sober, is pretty tame: “It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare,” he writes.

Is this trifecta of employment, education, and health care a formula for socialism? Let’s look at each one. First, public education is accepted as a fact by most in the Western world. Now we can entertain a debate from libertarians about whether the role of government in education should be curtailed, but this is hardly a manifestation of papal radicalism. Francis’ mention of health care might send up some red flags, but his statement is hardly an endorsement of a socialist single-payer system—or any other system for that matter.

As for his call for financial and government leaders to ensure citizens have dignified employment, it’s hard to see some hidden socialist agenda here, especially in the context of his remark that “[w]elfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses”—another statement somehow missed by commentators.

Furthermore, Francis couches his economic ruminations in several key caveats. He insists that his words should not be associated with any particular ideology. And he even goes so far as to readily concede that the Church does not “have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.”

In short, while Evangelii Gaudium has scathing words for free-market capitalism, it simply does not amount to the socialist manifesto that so many have made it out to be. So why have Francis’ words confused so many conservatives? Why do some think, as one writer put it, that “Big Government Socialism [is] the very thing the Pope advocates”?

Catholicism’s third way between socialism and capitalism

Francis’ critique of capitalism can only be properly understood in the context of modern Catholic social teachings, much of which stems from the encyclical Rerum Novarum, written in the late nineteenth century (and which was reinforced and enriched 40 years later in Quadragesimo Anno). To read his words today without this vital context is about as ludicrous as trying to understand a U.S. Supreme Court decision without reading the Constitution, or any other prior court decisions that serve as precedent.

Written in 1891, in an era of industrial capitalism, Rerum Novarum called for the wealthy to practice charity and for states to look out for the interests of the working classes in terms kindred to those of Pope Francis: “If we turn not to things external and material, the first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making,” wrote Pope Leo XIII.

One of the chief concerns of Leo XIII was the preservation of property rights—not just for the industrial capitalists, but also for the men who worked in their factories. Rerum Novarum offers an extraordinary defense of private property rights that is rooted in Genesis and the gospels—one that ultimately is philosophically richer and more intellectually robust than anything you will read in Locke.

The encyclical inspired a new Catholic movement known as distributism. Its early pioneers, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, penned anti-capitalism jeremiads that were at least as scathing as anything written by Francis. In The Outline of Sanity, Chesterton claimed commercial capitalism had “tried to disguise the pickpocket with some of the virtues of the pirate.” In The Servile State, Belloc warned that industrial capitalism was “re-establishing the slave.”

Belloc recognized, as Chesterton surely must have, that capitalism was a product of the impulses of the Protestant Reformation. It came as no surprise to him, then, that the spirit of capitalism was foreign to Catholicism:

[N]o one will doubt that Catholicism is in spirit opposed to Industrial Capitalism; the Faith would never have produced Huddersfield or Pittsburg. It is demonstrable that historically, Industrial Capitalism arose out of the denial of Catholic morals at the Reformation.

But Chesterton and Belloc were far from communist sympathizers. In economic affairs, perhaps the only thing that scared them more than the money-loving capitalist was the power-lusting communist. Belloc even went so far as to say that any Catholic who supported communism had committed a mortal sin. Both were equally horrified by the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few—whether they be robber barons or socialist bureaucrats. As the name of their movement suggests, they called for as wide a distribution of property as possible in society—a solution that was an authentic third way between the capitalism and socialism of their day.

Certainly capitalism is a different beast than it was a century ago. The dreary pall that industrial capitalism cast over so much of the urbanized West is something most Americans today encounter only in novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But Francis’ critique is far more relevant than a U.S. or other Western audience might at first suppose.

What is Francis really saying?

His message on the economy consists of three main points.

First, he issues a plea for the wealthy to practice acts of charity—a timeless moral imperative that is right out of the gospel. Francis’ principal concern is with the conversion of hearts, not economic systems. “Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual,” Francis writes. The pope is consistent in this focus on the spiritual. When it comes to the poor, he writes, that “I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care.”

Second, Francis is taking aim at consumer culture. It’s in this context that he decries the “idolatry of money.” He warns that the modern economy promotes “inordinate consumption,” creating a “disposable culture” that treats the poor like the leftovers we so thoughtlessly discard. Certainly such words are sorely needed in our media-saturated culture where we are constantly bombarded with ads urging us to buy the latest iToy, safari-ready SUVs, and credit cards for more things we don’t need.

Those two points should not be that controversial. It’s with the third point—the criticisms directed at the free market mechanism itself—that Francis really runs afoul of the gospel of globalization.

Francis warns that those free market absolutists who bristle at any government intervention are inviting a “new tyranny” that is “invisible and often virtual.” He calls on Catholics to reject the absolute autonomy of markets, recognizing that we “can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.” Economic growth and growth in justice, he adds, are not the same thing.

It’s interesting that most of the decline in the global poverty rate mentioned above is confined to just a few countries. One of those countries is China, which employs 100,000 children in factories, where working conditions are notoriously abusive and the pay is abysmally low. It is not uncommon for workers driven to despair in Southeast Asian countries like China resort to mob violence or suicide. One factory in China had so many suicides that it had to install safety netting around the building. Abuse from security guards at the same factory finally ignited a 2,000-worker riot in the fall of 2012, sending 40 people to the hospital.

Factory conditions elsewhere in the region sound like something right out of Sinclair’s The Jungle. In 2012, a fire in an apparel factory in Bangladesh killed 112 workers. Earlier this year, a factory collapse in Bangladesh claimed the lives of more than 1,100. The New York Times later reported that the facility was only “one of hundreds undergoing post-disaster inspections.” Next door, India had its own factory collapse earlier this summer, which killed at least one and injured two dozen.

Abuse from security guards can also result in on-the-job fatalities. In October 2007, the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, reported that there had been three deaths that year to date at a garment manufacturing facility in the city of Bangalore, India. In one case, a 39-year-old woman’s request to leave work after she starting vomiting was delayed by two and a half hours. When she was finally released from her station, she stepped outside and collapsed. Another woman was initially denied her request to leave after she went into labor. Her child, who was delivered on the street outside, did not survive.

Could these, perhaps, be the kind of people Francis has in mind when he speaks of a “new tyranny” and says that we cannot trust “the invisible hand of the market” to deliver justice? It certainly would seem so.

But is this a message that needs to reach the kind of global audience Francis commands? Indeed it is, for our consumer culture is deeply entangled with the manufacturing world of Southeast Asia—in ways that should make U.S. consumers uncomfortable: The Bangladeshi factories where workers died in the fire and the collapse were suppliers for Walmart. The factory in India made clothes for Gap. And the Chinese factory with chronic suicides is Foxconn, a supplier for Apple. In fact, the same weekend that U.S. consumers were mobbing stores for the iPhone 5, the workers who made them were rioting.

It’s hard to see such stories as abuses of the free market. Rather they seem to be case studies in what happens when the free market goes global: one does not need a degree in economics to understand that Walmart, Gap, and Apple are using overseas factories because of cheap labor. It is precisely this mentality that ‘cheapens’ the value of human beings that Francis is so urgently calling upon us to abandon. That is his ultimate message on the economy.

image: giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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