A Rich Church for the Poor?

Editor’s Note: We received a couple of larger and unexpected gifts over the weekend (a special one from someone I met by “chance” on the Camino a few weeks back), and are now very close to our Spring fundraising goal. I’m back in the office today from my time abroad and expect to find checks from those of you who don’t like giving online. But I’m not presuming. We won’t be passing around the tin cup again until the end of 2014, so if you can do something to support our work and bring this drive to a close, please, do so today. – Robert Royal

Pope Francis gave one of those speeches on Friday that the world press loves to stoke into an instant ideological auto-da-fé. Speaking to the “U.N. System Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination” – a dull dog of a bureaucratic confab, if there ever was one – he urged the global “coordinators,” gathered in grave council, to do some extra special coordination, which, as we know, they do so well, and include the excluded and marginalized in a more equitable world system.

In short, the kind of thing you expect a pope to say and not exactly front-page news.

But Francis used the phrase “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State,” which in the hopeful eyes of certain journalists, means he must hate businessmen and at least sympathize with the Democratic Party, if not be some species of Socialist, and maybe even a liberation theologian.

Several conservative journalists, too, seemed to believe the pope’s mere mention that the state might play a role in economics was an indictment of the whole market system and the prelude to ever-greater statism.

News moves so fast on the Internet now – faster than real thought – that I recommend a calm look at the English as well as Spanish and Italian versions (we’ve heard that Francis has been ill-served by bad translation). I myself would frankly have preferred that he not use the word “redistribution,” which lends itself to several misunderstandings. But the controversial phrase appears in this context:

A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.

Note what comes immediately after “legitimate redistribution”: the “indispensable” cooperation between the private sector – which is to say markets operating within the rule of law – and even more significantly, “civil society,” which is to say the subsidiary human institutions – persons, families, communities, not least churches, etc. – that by definition are not the State.

Now, to know what to make of this, you’d need more details about how Pope Francis envisions the three elements and expects them to interact. But clearly, he’s no mere statist.

          Pope Francis greets U.N. Scretary General Ban Ki-moon

As in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (you can look it up), he allows that there’s a legitimate role for businesses and non-State actors. He may not have a very clear idea of what precisely those roles are – and who does, the U.N.? But that’s not really a pope’s job. In Centesimus Annus (nos. 42 ff), St. John Paul II gave about as detailed an account of the benefits and dangers of markets, majorities, business activity, civil society, welfare systems, statism, and related questions as any pope can give. But even he says the Church proposes no “models.” It’s worth rereading those paragraphs every now and then.

Now, anyone familiar with how “international activity” actually works will doubt whether it can be much better or even different. Still, there are times “co-ordination” may bring modest benefits (much more modest than how markets have lifted up the poor, by the way). There’s no great harm in a pope encouraging that, so long as we understand its limits and the tendency of international bodies these days to push ideological agendas, as the Vatican has experienced twice recently. (Remember: this is a pope who looks at things through the perspective of Benson’s dystopian Lord of the World.)

But here’s an alternative idea: could the Church re-assert itself, precisely as a civil society institution, and not rely as much on states to do jobs the Church once did in education, healthcare, social services, and much more? In education alone, for example, the virtual state monopoly from K through college has meant not only a shallow focus on jobs and economics, but a loss of a non-government perspective without which most kids are merely indoctrinated in some current nostrum.

For these and other crucial tasks, the Church could not be a “poor Church in service of the poor,” the way Pope Francis has been saying. It would be a Church practicing the spirit of poverty, to be sure. But with richer material, intellectual, and spiritual resources to meet needs.

Many of us are old enough to remember a Church, especially here in America, which did precisely that. One of the things that divide Catholics today is the relation of Church and State. Liberals tend to believe that only the State can perform certain functions in the modern world. That may be, but we want to look very carefully at such things before we remove them from the sphere of civil society and non-state action.

Human beings have delicate and complex moral natures. By the 1990s, it was clear in America, even under a Democratic president, that a mistaken view of even so necessary a thing as a welfare safety net might in fact harm the very people it intended to help. If we really want a renewed conversation on how to get the poor and marginalized into a better position, we need to look at political, economic, and social structures. One way or another, the State surely plays a role in those, conservative fears notwithstanding. But we also need to look at families, education, and moral principles that are an indispensable counterweight to the State.

It may be that Pope Francis’ voice will help stimulate fresh discussion. It certainly would help if the Synod of the Family in the Fall didn’t get bogged down in divorce and remarriage, gay unions, abortion, contraception, and the other secular shibboleths. The family – not the radical, freestanding individual – is the fundamental cell of society. Economies need to place them at the center of their concerns. It’s no surprise that as families and the kinds of people sound families produce have shrunk, the State has grown.

Maybe that’s something for the U.N. System Chief Executives Board for Coordination to contemplate.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.