Pope Francis certainly makes things interesting. Aside from keeping former kremlinologists employed trying to discern the intent behind his appointments, he can’t seem to help saying things that get people in an uproar. The most notorious was an interview with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, in which the Pope seemed to be endorsing a rather generous (i.e., relativistic ) concept of conscience. As it turns out, however, Scalfari, who is an atheist, did not record his discussion with the Pope nor did he take notes; the “interview” was actually his own recollection of the conversation (link). He eventually admitted “some of the Pope’s words I reported were not shared by Pope Francis.” Oops. The Vatican removed the interview from its website. The Pope, it appears, is learning to be more careful.
More surprising (perhaps) is the uproar over a statement in the Pope’s Encyclical Gaudium Evangelii (Joy of the Gospel) that seemed to be a condemnation of Capitalism . . . at least that’s the way the press reported it, and considering the great gaudium sinistro (Joy on the Left) that accompanied it, how could they be wrong?
Easily, as it turns out. We’ll get to that in a moment, but we need a little context for the Church’s teaching on matters economic. Let’s start with four stipulations:
-1. The Magisterium of the Church in general, and the Pope (any Pope) in particular, claims no particular competence in economics.
-2. The Magisterium and the Pope do, however, have the competence to teach authoritatively on moral principles that Catholics are to apply in their economic life.
-3. Since Leo XIII’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 the Popes have been developing a body of Magisterial teaching on this topic.
-4. A pope cannot simply reverse prior magisterial teaching, even in a formal proclamation such as an encyclical letter (of course, he can’t say anything authoritative in a newspaper interview).
Given that, the proper way to evaluate what Francis said about the free market economy is to consider his remarks in the context of the existing teaching. A good place to start is Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, issued one hundred years after Rerum Novarum (hence the name: “hundredth year”), in which he looks back at Leo’s encyclical, Pius XI’s1931 encyclical QuadrigesimoAnno (“The Fortieth Year” – do you see a pattern here?) and the economic events of the twentieth century. While the scope of The Blessed (now Saint) John Paul’s encyclical is too vast to explore here, we can at least get a glimpse at what he has to say about socialism and capitalism.
Pope John Paul tells us, first of all, that the “guiding principle of Pope Leo's Encyclical, and of all of the Church's social doctrine, is a correct view of the human person and of his unique value, inasmuch as ‘man ... is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself”’ . . .and “his essential dignity as a person.” (Centesimus Annus 5) Given that standard, socialism is ruled out. John Paul quotes from Rerum Novarum, which criticizes the socialists because they "encourage the poor man's envy of the rich and strive to do away with private property” and
their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that, were they carried into effect, the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are moreover emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community. (Rerum Novarum 99)
This is not to say that the Church favors an unfettered free market:
There is certainly a legitimate sphere of autonomy in economic life which the State should not enter. The State, however, has the task of determining the juridical framework within which economic affairs are to be conducted, and thus of safeguarding the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience. (Centesimus Annus 15).
The state’s role should be determined by the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity:
. . . according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favourable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker. (Centesimus Annus 15)
The meaning of solidarity should be evident in the passage above; subsidiarity is described by Pius XI in Quadrigesimo Anno 79 as follows:
[I]t is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them . . .
Pope John Paul also says:
It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs . . . But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. It is also necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources. (Centesimus Annus 35)
Notice that the Pope is not describing a particular system, but putting forward certain principles that should undergird the system: a relatively free market, a state that protects property and ensures the rule of law, protects the weak from exploitation, and in the process respects the appropriate freedom to conduct their own affairs that everyone possesses as part of his innate dignity as a human being made in the image of God. The market is the best means of producing the most prosperity for everyone, and as Christians we need to find ways to include everyone in its benefits.
Which brings us back to our starting point. No system can take the place of the “unique value” of each human person. In the matter “of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector”, for instance” primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society” (Centesimus Annus 48). John Adams said of the U.S. Constitution: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The same is true of the market economy. No system can be truly just apart from the free choices of those who populate it. As Pope John Paul says in another place:
It is not therefore a matter of inventing a "new program". The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem (Novo Millenio Ineunto 29).
Pardon the lengthy excursus into papal documents, but this is the backdrop against which we need to examine Pope Francis’ remarks on economic systems. In Evangelii Gaudium 54 the Pope says, according to the official English translation:
In this context, 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.
Catholic blogger extraordinaire Fr. Z rightly points out (link) that the Spanish phrase por mismo, translated “inevitably” above, is more accurately rendered “by itself”. That is an important distinction, although even with the less accurate translation any objective observer can see that what Pope Francis is saying is completely consistent with the teaching of the rigid, right-wing, authoritarian, pre-Vatican II neo-Torquemada John Paul II in Centesimus Annus: The system can’t do it alone: it can only provide the opportunity. In fact, the system is only as just as those people who animate it, who can only find true justice in the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So, what’s all the uproar about? The key lies in the phrase “objective of observer.” As I pointed out in an earlier post (link), those on the left, in the Church or in the secular world, need to protect their worldview at all costs, and will often cite in their own support authorities who, on even cursory inspection, don’t support them at all. I once knew of a high school campus minister who had previously been a 100% pro-abortion state legislator, but nevertheless would brandish (I mean physically brandish) a copy of John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae when arguing against capital punishement. She seemed unaware (or maybe she just didn't care) that abortion comes in for much harsher treatment in that document.
That’s the story here. The secular press and their religious counterparts will continue to snatch up and loudly trumpet any remarks by this Pope that can even remotely be construed to support their heterodoxy. If you want to know what the pope really said, go to a more sober source.