The Pope and the Economy

Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation has received plenty of attention around the world. Now the man is Time’s “Person of the Year”. But perhaps the most controversial aspect, at least in the USA, has been the economic issue. His words on this subject drew critiques, such as this one  from Samuel Gregg here who said some of his positions are “rather questionable”, Rush Limbaugh, and others like this. 

This is an extract of what Francis said in Evangelii gaudium:

54. 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. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

No to the new idolatry of money

55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

Gregg’s critique reminds me of some responses to very similar comments by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate about the economy. One famous critique to the Pope came from George Weigel, here. Weigel’s article was considered by several commentators as a rather desperate attempt to defend his economic ideology, such as this one. Below what Benedict XVI said:

In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well. Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function[r1] . And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss. It was timely when Paul VI in Populorum Progressio insisted that the economic system itself would benefit from the wide-ranging practice of justice, inasmuch as the first to gain from the development of poor countries would be rich ones.90 According to the Pope, it was not just a matter of correcting dysfunctions through assistance. The poor are not to be considered a “burden”,91 but a resource, even from the purely economic point of view. It is nevertheless erroneous to hold that the market economy has an inbuilt need for a quota of poverty and underdevelopment in order to function at its best. It is in the interests of the market to promote emancipation, but in order to do so effectively, it canno[r2] t rely only on itself, because it is not able to produce by itself something that lies outside its competence. It must draw its moral energies from other subjects that are capable of generating them.

36. Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.

The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so.

There have been several attempts to defend Pope Francis too. The best one in my opinion, reacting to the accusation that Francis is a Marxist, is this one in The Antlantic on the economics of Francis. Heather Horn claims that Francis wasn’t critiquing the free market per se, nor following Marx, only that his vision matches Polanyi’s vision of economics:

Polanyi’s Big Idea: The Economy Has to Serve Society, Not the Other Way Around

Economic activity, Polanyi says, started off as just one of many outgrowths of human activity. And so, economics originally served human needs. But over time, people (particularly, policy-making people) got the idea that markets regulated themselves if laws and regulations got out of their way. The free market converts told people that “only such policies and measures are in order which help to ensure the self-regulation of the market by creating the conditions which make the market the only organizing power in the economic sphere.” Gradually, as free market-based thinking was extended throughout society, humans and nature came to be seen as commodities called “labor” and “land.” The “market economy” had turned human society into a “market society.”
In short (as social sciences professors prepare to slam their heads into their tables at my reductionism), instead of the market existing to help humans live better lives, humans were ordering their lives to fit into the economy.
The Pope was quick to respond as well. Today, he answered the specific question on criticisms coming from the USA in an interview by Andrea Tornielli. He explains his language wasn’t technical, but defends the idea he was trying to communicate:
Some of the passages in the “Evangelii Gaudium” attracted the criticism of ultraconservatives in the USA. As a Pope, what does it feel like to be called a “Marxist”?“The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” 

The most striking part of the Exhortation was where it refers to an economy that “kills”…

“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.”  

Once again, this is nothing new as explicitly said by Francis, and reminds me of Benedict’s words in a homily about the family, and how economic theories can affect families:
In modern economic theories, there is often a utilitarian concept of work, production and the market. Yet God’s plan, as well as experience, show that the one-sided logic of sheer utility and maximum profit are not conducive to harmonious development, to the good of the family or to building a just society, because it brings in its wake ferocious competition, strong inequalities, degradation of the environment, the race for consumer goods, family tensions. Indeed, the utilitarian mentality tends to take its toll on personal and family relationships, reducing them to a fragile convergence of individual interests and undermining the solidity of the social fabric.

One thought on “The Pope and the Economy

  1. Pingback: The Overview Effect of Francis | Faith & Environment

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