Pope Francis on Economics

The recent Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis is not primarily about economics. It is called Evangelii Gaudium — The Joy of the Gospel — because it is about preaching the Gospel to the whole world. I don’t really want to talk about the small portion of that Exhortation that mentions economics, since that is not the main message. But many conservative Catholics as well as many conservative political and social commentators, have been criticizing Pope Francis and Evangelii Gaudium based on economics. So I will offer a few words on the topic.

I can’t help but notice that most conservative Catholics have ignored the many portions of the document in which Pope Francis offers them mild corrections for common errors among conservatives (or traditionalists, or whatever term might be used). See my 8-part series of posts discussing that rebuke by the Pope. His holy words fell on deaf ears.

Far too many conservative Catholics believe whatever the conservative Catholic subculture teaches. And if anyone, even the Pope or a Council, says otherwise, they do not accept it. Truly, they have already departed from the Church in their hearts and minds. For they do not accept the teachings of the Magisterium, and they distort the teachings of Tradition and Scripture according to their own minds.

So in order to avoid dealing with the rebuke by the Pope, certain commentators have focused only on economics. Then they continue the same error that has led them away from the teachings of the Magisterium — assuming that the conservative viewpoint is always correct. Did Jesus teach conservatism? No, He did not. Some of Jesus’ teachings are liberal, some are moderate, some are conservative. You cannot tell if an idea is true by whether or not it is conservative.

And this exaltation of conservatism above Catholicism has led many conservatives to exalt their own conservative point of view above the Pope. If what the Pope says is liberal, or if the Pope says that a certain conservative idea is false, they automatically assume that he must be mistaken. It does not even enter their minds for a moment that a conservative idea might be incorrect, or that the Pope might understand something better than the conservative Catholic subculture understands it.

If we cast aside the above errors, and consider the words of the Pope on economics as a student considers the words of a Teacher, it is easy to see that the Pope is correct on economics. Here is what the Pope actually wrote:

“The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 202).

Here, Pope Francis criticizes liberal political and economic theory for treating social safety net programs (“welfare projects”) as if these were permanent entitlements, rather than temporary responses. Pope Francis says that we must address the causes of the poverty that requires a social safety net program, and not leave the poor trapped in that state. Conservative commentators have often said much the same thing. But I think the Pope has the greater insight, because he relates it to the Gospel and to our duty to express the love of neighbor by helping them in body as well as in soul, in temporal needs as well as in spiritual needs.

But then the Pope also criticizes the conservative point of view on economics:

“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. 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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 54).

In this passage, Pope Francis criticizes conservative political and economic theory, which emphasizes economic growth, favors the wealthy (as “job creators”), and largely ignores the poor. The Pope is right in his criticism. I’ve heard conservative commentators speaking as if a free market with very little regulation will automatically provide for the poor. They speak almost as if capitalism and the free market were compassionate gods, who would provide for all who are in need. They claim that the poor need merely apply themselves, to compete in the free market, in order to succeed.

Well, some can succeed this way, and others cannot. Some poor persons lack the personal resources to succeed. And in any competition, there will be losers as well as winners. So certainly this approach cannot be inclusive in the sense of providing for all. Neither is capitalism and the free market inherently just. For the wealthy have more power than the poor in that system, and so the economically strong can and often do take advantage of the economically weak.

So the Pope’s point is obviously correct: economic growth in a capitalist system and a free market with little regulation will NOT succeed in bringing justice and inclusiveness to all. The poor will sometimes benefit from economic growth and a competitive free market. But at no time and in no case will all the poor be provided for by that system. One person out-competes another, leaving him wanting. One company or region of the world out-competes another, leaving many people wanting. Free markets need regulation, and capitalism needs altruism, social safety net programs, and large projects aimed at reforming the grave problems of the world that result in severe poverty.

The Pope is not saying that we must abandon capitalism and free markets, but only that these elements of society are not sufficient in themselves. We cannot assume that economic growth will trickle-down to the poor, and thereby solve all their problems. We must give our own personal attention to those in need.

When Evangelii Gaudium was first issued, some conservatives re-translated and re-interpreted EG 54 (quoted above) to try to weaken its rebuke of conservative economics. Some even tried to claim that the real meaning was much the opposite of what the passage seemed to be saying. Other commentators simply rebuked the Pope, claiming that he was ignorant on economics and accusing him of promoting Marxism.

First of all, how unfaithful to Christ and His Church does someone have to be, to place conservative political and economic theory above the teaching of the Gospel and the love of neighbor? Unfortunately, many conservative Catholics no longer follow Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church. They are conservative, but not Catholics. They have become worshippers of conservatism. For them, even a conservative economic theory is more important than the Joy of the Gospel.

Second, how arrogant does someone have to be to consider himself a better source of truth than the Pope? You perhaps have heard the expression, as a rhetorical rebuke of someone: “Are you holier than the Pope?” Some commentators today in the mass media and on the internet literally speak as if they were holier and more knowledgeable about the Catholic Faith than the Pope. Anytime the Pope says anything that does not accord with their own thinking, they automatically assume the Pope must be wrong.

Third, the Pope recently reinforced and reiterated his statements in EG 54, thereby contradicting the misinterpretation and re-translation of that passage by some commentators. Here’s a link to the new interview, post Evangelii Gaudium, with Pope Francis. And here’s what the Pope said in that interview:

“There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.”

Yes, Pope Francis did intend to criticize trickle-down economics, to point out a fundamental failing in that specific economic theory. Economic growth and a free market will not solve the problems of poverty, hunger, and the injustice whereby the poor cannot access the goods of the society in which they live.

And here is an example of conservative arrogance in response to the Pope’s teaching: Fr. Z. commenting on the above interview. He assumes that the Pope is wrong and that he himself is right. Nothing Pope Francis says has the effect of teaching or correcting Fr. Z. This priest treats his own understanding of faith, morals, salvation, and even economics as if he could not possibly err, and as if the Pope must necessarily be wrong whenever the Pope says anything contrary to his own understanding.

I don’t think the translation issues that Fr. Z. raises matter much at all. The Pope got his point across quite well in every version of the translation. But many conservative Catholics have decided to place conservatism above Catholicism. In their pride at being conservative or traditionalist Catholics, they assume that their point of view cannot err. But Scripture says this about that: Pride goeth before a fall.

Soon, many conservative Catholics will fall away from the Pope and the Church because they place conservatism above Catholicism. Of course, there are also many liberal Catholics who place liberalism above Catholicism. They will fall away under the conservative successor to Pope Francis.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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One Response to Pope Francis on Economics

  1. Matthew Advent says:

    Ron,

    You’re clearly a bright guy from reading your blog, but here you exceed your competency. The very fact that you conflate the nonsensical propositions of “trickle down economics” and the functioning of the free market shows beyond doubt that you know little of either. Moreover, the fact that you seem to think that “conservative” commentators are actually defending the free market instead of the cronyism they profit from shows that you have little knowledge of economics beyond the nightly newscast. Almost everyone, the majority of economist included, thinks they can jump to the sexy problems such as the business cycle, or unemployment without learning the basics of economic theory. This is unfortunately not the case, economics is a science whose rules are universal, and always hold, regardless of what the pope says. The pope can no more give a definitive ruling on how the price system functions than he can on the laws of quantum physics. Other than when he talks about economics though, I love Pope Francis. He is the man the Church needs at this moment in history. He is taking the brilliant teaching of Pope Benedict and bringing it to people in a way I could never imagine. Recent Popes have struggled to be relevant, or even make it into the news, but Francis is able to do this without even trying. Its quite amazing in my eyes, and truly God is leading him.

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