Pope Francis’ Economics


Last month a bold front-page headline of the New York Daily News read “IN GREED THEY TRUST:  Fat Cats Revolt. Francis’ rap on rich may cost St. Pat’s.” Ken Langone, the founder of Home Depot, said a few wealthy Catholics were threatening to withhold their financial support of a $180-million St. Patrick’s Cathedral renovation project because of the pope’s comments in Evangelii Gaudium concerning economics. These disgruntled donors thought he was against democratic capitalism and people who strive to succeed.

Langone told Cardinal Dolan, “Your Eminence, this is one more hurdle I hope we don’t have to deal with. You want to be careful about generalities. Rich people in one country don’t act the same as rich people in another country.”

Dolan replied that Francis was being misunderstood: “The pope loves poor people. He also loves rich people. He loves people. . . .We’ve got to correct to make sure this gentleman understands the Holy Father’s message properly.”

Pope Francis, Dolan added, believes “money itself is morally neutral. Money, our wealth is a gift from God. And the morality comes in the way we use it. . . . If it became a god, if it becomes in idol, Pope Francis is saying, then it’s wrong because there is only one God.”

The cardinal is right. Many conservatives – Rush Limbaugh is one – called the pope a Marxist. Leftists have declared he embraces socialism. They’ve got it all wrong. Historically, popes have opposed both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. And Pope Francis is not saying anything very different from his predecessors.

The Church teaches morals, not economics. But economic life is subordinate to moral truths. That’s why the Church holds that the economy should allow us to earn a stable, decent wage to support ourselves and our families, offer a modest opportunity for comfort and leisure, and provide opportunities to advance based on interests, talents, and drive.

The Church has supported private property, free enterprise, profit-making, and the reinvestment of capital to expand and create more wealth and jobs, if these institutions and activities also respect moral and social obligations.

What the Church has opposed, however, are extremist systems of every kind that, as Pope Pius XI put it in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), scorn “the human dignity of the workers, the social character of economic activity and social justice itself and the common good.”

In Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII had warned “rich men” that it was their duty to ensure that “workers are not to be treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of the human personality be respected in them, ennobled as it has been through what we call the Christian character.”

In Quadragesimo Anno Pius condemned socialism (as Leo had already) because it endangers human liberties by concentrating economic power in the hands of a few who impose their policies on the general public: 

Society as Socialism conceives it, can on the one hand neither exist nor be thought of without an obviously excessive use of force; on the other hand, it fosters a liberty no less false, since there is no place in it for true social authority, which rests not on temporal and material advantages but descends from God alone. . . .Christian [and] socialism are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.

On the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus, declared that the “Primary responsibility [for human rights in the economic sector] belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society. . . .The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals.”

He also observed that, “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.” At the same time, we have more than material needs. “There are many human needs which find no place on the market. . . .It is on this level that the Church’s specific and decisive contribution to true culture is to be found.”

Pope Francis continues in this tradition. He rightly condemns the greedy and the unethical who live a Social Darwinist creed of survival of the fittest. He also reproves unbridled consumerism, a culture that has a “throw away” attitude about life, including the inherent dignity of the human person. And he criticizes the idolatry of money, including countries that devalue the savings of people and wreck economies by issuing excessive amounts of government debt.

So far nothing new.

Francis went on to say that “the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies” and that the businessman or entrepreneur who serves the common good has a “noble vocation.” He also states, as did JPII, that welfare programs “should be considered merely temporary responses.”

As an investment banker for thirty-seven years and an entrepreneur who founded a successful business, I fully agree. So why all the fuss?

Ideologues, who want to convince the world that the Church is in their corner, are cherry-picking words or phrases. In other words, they are deliberately taking statements by Francis out of context.

For instance, when the Pope uses the word “inequality,” leftists interpret it to mean he is for redistribution of income and not equality of opportunity. Then there are people on the right, who do not understand that the Church, by its very nature, must oppose atheism, materialism, and Marxism because they deny human dignity, rights, and freedom.

The 24/7 news-cycle also doesn’t help. To fill airtime, newscasters now make a headline from any loudmouth’s comments – no matter how uninformed.

It’s frustrating for anyone who defends the Church’s Magisterium in the public square. The Vatican has long had a good and steady message. It needs to make it harder for partisans of various stripes to distort it.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.