Last week there was a big media buzz in response to what Pope Francis said in his first “apostolic exhortation” entitled Evangelli Gaudium. The 50,000 word document was highlighted more for what it said about economics than anything else, and it caused a storm.
On the one hand, Rush Limbaugh blasted the pope’s statement as “pure Marxism,” saying the pope does not know what he is talking about. On the other hand, the leftwing magazine, The Nation, said that the pope has joined the ranks of the Occupy Wall Street activist yet wondered if he went far enough.
The thing that surprised me most about all this excitement is how few of those commenting on the pope’s words seem to have read the 224 page document. The impression one gets from reading the critics is that this is a major economic policy statement coming out of the Vatican. But it was not that at all.
Having read the entire document, it is hardly concerned with economics at all!
The title in English is “The gospel of joy” and it gives pastoral advice to Catholic leaders about the proclamation of the gospel in today’s world. It begins saying “the joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of those who encounter Jesus.” Then it issues a call to embark on a new evangelization that is marked by joy in Christ.
The document says “the gospel radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice.” It goes on to focus on evangelism as part of the missionary mandate of the church, and explicitly cites the Great Commission text of Matthew 28 as a commission for all believers. It says that the whole church is to take up the missionary impulse and every Christian is to be a “missionary disciple.”
This is not your average papal pronouncement. It comes across as a brief calling the Roman Catholic Church to become more missional in its structure and its words.
The document covers seven main themes of Pope Francis’ vision for a new evangelization. It speaks of reform of the church in a missionary key, the temptations of pastors, the entire church giving itself to evangelization, the preparation of sermons, the care of the poor, social dialogue, and the spiritual motivations for the church’s missionary action.
That is the thrust of the document. And you would never have known it by listening to Rush or The Nation or just about any other mainstream news story last week.
And by the way, while I am still not used to hearing popes talk about gospel, joy, grace, missions, and evangelism in this particular way, (though I am gratified to hear it), there are parts of this exhortation that I find theologically troubling (i.e. the justification of non-Christians, the elevated role of Mary). But I will save my comment on that for another time. In this post I want to focus on the economics of Pope Francis.
Yes, the pope did speak somewhat disparagingly about trickle down economic theories and criticized an approach to economics which absolutizes the market place.
Let me give you my take on his criticism.
When you read the entire document, his criticism is mainly focused on economics that is practiced apart from morals and values rooted in a faith in God. He says that economic growth BY ITSELF will not bring about greater justice in the world. The pope explicitly criticizes “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” He warns of an economics where the market place is absolutized, and there is a rejection of God and ethics. In this respect, he restates a concern that was voiced by the two previous popes, as well as by many who stand in orthodox Protestant churches.
There is a kind of libertarian economic theory and practice that disregards what Christians hold as an essential moral and spiritual foundation to the economy. Economics involves stewardship. It is not simply a secular amoral affair. It involves being accountable to God, honoring the Lord with our wealth, living out our vocations before him, hard work, living within our means, generosity, and loving our neighbor.
But with many people these days, even good conservatives, there is a hole in our economics. A moral and spiritual foundation that is central to economics from a Christian perspective is missing. When that happens economics can become self serving and idolatrous.
Many forget that Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics wrote The Wealth of Nations during the Enlightenment (1776) and wanted to reduce all economic phenomena to a single principle. His book was the first modern comprehensive treatment of economics. It focused on the invisible hand, the laws of the market, natural liberty and limited government. His concern was only with the temporal world. The Wealth of Nations distanced itself from an economic tradition before Smith rooted in Augustine. Aquinas and echoed by the Reformers, where loving God and neighbor, and virtue, and accountability to heaven, are all relevant to economic theory! Smith was not concerned with spiritual considerations or redeeming economics.
Many also forget that before Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, as the professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, he wrote a book called a Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he talked about the standards of ethical conduct that hold our society together.
So Pope Francis was recalling a pre-Enlightenment vision of economics that says God is relevant to economics. He affirms that there are other choices besides socialism and an autonomous libertarian free market capitalism.
In that way he is in agreement with many of America’s founding fathers who believed that to thrive, both democracy and modern economy depend upon a population rooted in virtue and faith. These are “indispensable supports” as Washington said, pillars to popular government, economic prosperity and liberty itself.
I do not think some on the right who are attacking Pope Francis’ document get this. Just as I do not think some on the left who praise it are correct in thinking this is a brief for big government and statism.
So I see his words as an important warning against a secularized marketplace. He rightly warns that when consumerism becomes the highest economic good, it misses the purpose of life. And he rightly reminds us that remembering the poor is a Christian imperative.
However, I also believe that Pope Francis does not adequately acknowledge what free markets have done in greatly reducing poverty in the 20th century. It has brought about a huge increase in the production of goods and services, lifted many put of poverty around the world and created a growing global middle class. It is misleading to refer to that capitalism as simply a new tyranny. In fact, a strong case can be made that it has been a great liberator and moral good and contributed to human dignity in the last 50 years. Between 1970 and 2010, the worst poverty in the world (people who live on one dollar a day or less, has decreased by 80%). What caused that? Not the UN. Not U.S. foreign aid. Not the IMF or central planning. It was free trade and growth in international markets. Because of that you could say that the free enterprise system of the late 20th century can be characterized as one of the best anti-poverty programs in history. And in that way Smith was right. Free markets and economic growth can be a means of bettering the condition of all.
I am not saying that it’s a perfect system. Recall what Winston Churchill said about capitalism and socialism. He said that the inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. But the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” Every system has its downside; it’s just that some are worse than others!
Christians cannot simply praise the free market system and leave it at that. And this is where Pope Francis has something important to say. For he knows the trouble that will come if we absolutize any system and forget the importance of virtue, morality, faith and our accountability to God He knows that the worst financial mistake anyone can ever make when it comes to economics is to forget about God (Deuteronomy 8.6-20).
YOU CAN READ THE FULL DOCUMENT HERE.