The Controversy Over Evangelii Gaudium

I’ve reached the point where I cringe a little every time I hear the name “Pope Francis” at a social gathering. No hard feelings, I hope, your Holiness. I understand that you have a big world to worry about, and can’t anticipate how your words will be heard in every single corner of it.

So I don’t really hold it against you when friends pull out judicious quotes in an effort to bait me into arguments about global finance and inequality. If you and I sat down over tea and crumpets to discuss it, I’ve no doubt that we could have a perfectly lovely conversation. In fact, you do seem like the kind of guy who would be more than willing, time permitting, to have such a tete a tete with every single Catholic on the planet. But until you can make it to my neighborhood, I’ll just have to speculate on how that conversation might go.

My friends seem to think I have a problem because I’m a Catholic who likes free markets. More specifically, I take my faith seriously, but I also incline towards the view that global markets are less free than they should be. I believe that less market regulation would, in general, precipitate greater human thriving. I think modern people are too quick to demand that social justice be imposed from above, when more effective solutions can often be found through an organic combination of market forces and grassroots civic organization.

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I suspect that Pope Francis and I would disagree a bit on these subjects. But I also feel that many friends (both liberal and conservative) are missing the big picture a bit when they suppose that people like me should be in a serious moral quandary right now, perhaps busily weighing which kind of apostasy (economic or religious) we prefer. Of course, if my feet are held to the fire, I will always choose the faith, but at the moment I’m not experiencing much podiatric discomfort. If we set these pragmatic disagreements against the backdrop of a full-fledged Catholic social teaching, I think they can plainly be seen for what they are: strategic quibbles about the best way to reach mutually-desired goals.

Admittedly there are a few lines in Evangelii Gaudium that are difficult for an economic conservative to take. There is some inevitable tooth-grinding over his choice of the phrase “trickle-down economy,” which is mostly a term of abuse that critics use to denigrate supply side economics. I also find that the document contains certain maddening ambiguities, as when it suggests (in no. 204) that the “unseen forces” of the market are blind to justice, but then, in the same paragraph, declares that, “the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.” What sort of agent are we to understand “the economy” to be in a statement like this? Weren’t we just told in the previous sentence that market forces are blind? Without clearing up these critical questions, we can’t even begin to make sense of such an exhortation on the level of public policy.

Nevertheless, I believe we will find, if we can elevate ourselves above the fray of American politics, that Pope Francis’ message is mainly a moral one, and on that level, I am not in the least tempted to dissent. In his remarks on economics, he is taking to task a particular brand of libertarianism that sees the free market as the sole agent through which social and global justice can be attained. I am happy to join him in condemning that ideology, and in urging my fellow conservatives to move past it, embracing a more humane and holistic commitment to advancing the common good.

To get a sense for Pope Francis’ real message, let’s consider the controversial passage that Wendy Warcholick discussed in her recent Crisis piece. Here the Holy Father criticizes “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” and decries “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” He goes on to lament the “globalization of indifference” that follows on this market-worship, as the obsession with material gain desensitizes us to the needs of the poor.

In response to these points, a number of conservative commentators have argued (in my estimation, persuasively) that no country in the world suffers from excessively free markets. As David Harsanyi points out at The Federalist, “People in places like Congo, Burundi, Eritrea, Malawi, or Mozambique live under corrupt authoritarian regimes where crippling poverty has a thousand fathers—none of them named capitalism. The people of Togo do not suffer in destitution because of some derivative scheme on Wall Street or the fallout from a tech IPO.”

I think Harsanyi and his fellow economic conservatives are basically right on this point. But are they responding directly to what the Holy Father actually said? Note that Pope Francis’ criticisms here are not mainly directed at actual existing policies. This supposedly explosive passage says nothing about the state of global finance per se. Instead, his criticism is directed at “some people” who think that social justice will follow inexorably from the flourishing of free trade. This is fairly consistent with his language throughout Evangelii Gaudium, which continually directs our attention to objectionable attitudes that are preventing us from entering sympathetically into the concerns of the poor.

In another controversial passage, Pope Francis contends that solutions to global poverty will necessarily require “rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” Again, one can draw some probable inferences about Pope Francis’ views on global finance, but his actual criticism is directed at attitudes, not policies. Seen in this light, I don’t find his criticisms problematic in the least. We should indeed reject any view that gives absolute autonomy to markets, which are relevant to certain elements of justice, but which nonetheless cannot be sensitive to all human needs.

Occasionally (as in passage no 204) the pontiff does hint at the possibility of top-down regulation as a likely corrective to global injustices. These references, however, are too vague to create real uneasiness except for a fairly hardened libertarian. The Holy Father calls for “decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes” that yield a “better” distribution of income globally. This is the kind of exhortation that could encompass almost any imaginable effort at addressing poverty, whether public or private. Only one approach is truly condemned: the approach whereby we do nothing at all for the poor, trusting market forces to resolve every injustice and meet every need.

A liberal critic might contend that I have now engaged in some fairly obtuse hair-splitting. By suggesting that the Holy Father’s criticisms are directed only at a fairly extreme ideological position, it may seem that I am illegitimately minimizing the impact of his message. And my interpretation may just seem implausible, given that the Holy Father is clearly criticizing attitudes that he regards as both pervasive and problematic in the world today. Hardened libertarians are a fairly rare breed, and they have had minimal success in their efforts to establish a largely-unregulated free market economy. It might seem strange for the pope to show such intense concern over a minority view.

Then again, it may not be strange at all. There are relatively few committed Marxists in the world today, and not many self-identify as moral relativists; nevertheless we understand why Church leaders have seen fit to address these ideological positions in recent years. Ideologies can have an impact on politics and culture that goes well beyond the ranks of those who formally adhere to them. Market-worshiping libertarians do exist, albeit not in great enough numbers to put us in any real danger of creating a Randian dystopia. But their priorities and prejudices are mirrored to a great extent by many more people than would explicitly identify with their agenda.

Outside Catholic circles, I find that it can be very difficult to engage political conservatives in a discussion of social justice or the common good. Because they are so deeply suspicious of large-scale government intervention, they tend to retreat into an atomistic individualism that swears by only two bedrock principles of justice: first, the need for a “colorblind” legal system, and second, entitlement of all people to participate in the free market. In fairness, most conservatives will stress the importance of private giving. But they often find it difficult to sustain a sophisticated conversation about the makeup of civic society or the importance of promoting the common good. The primary reason, I believe, is that political conservatives tend to regard individual liberties and the autonomy of the market as sacrosanct. I can identify the influence of a market-worshiping libertarianism in the arguments of American political conservatives.

I am even inclined to agree that small government libertarianism may have had the effect of perpetuating inequality and preventing the poor from improving their lot in life. This is not, in my estimation, because its advocates have enjoyed too much political success and influence. Rather, they may have had just enough influence to prevent economic conservatives from achieving lasting political success. The Republican Party’s electoral woes in recent years surely do reflect at least in part an inability to persuade Americans that they are genuinely concerned about promoting the common good. Consequently, we must contend with the challenges of an over-regulated economy, a growing welfare state and a sustained assault on innocent life and religious freedom.

It would be easier to be cheerful about the Holy Father’s message if liberals did not seem poised on the edges of their chairs, desperate for an opportunity to gloat. Nevertheless, I am not worried that I will end up as a “cafeteria Catholic.” Rather, I would see Evangelii Gaudium as a constructive challenge to economically conservative Catholics. We should see it as an opportunity to explain that it is in fact freer markets—not more regulated ones—that can help us to overcome the “economy of exclusion” that Pope Francis laments. We should seize this chance to demonstrate the strength of our thirst for justice, articulating ways in which market forces can interact with a functional civil society to produce, not only jobs and material goods, but a thriving, prosperous, innovative and just civil society in which no one is overlooked or exploited.

(Photo Credit: CNS / Paul Haring)


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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