In the Evangelii Gaudium (pdf), the first apostolic exhortation of his papacy, Pope Francis focused on the church’s mission of evangelization, urging clergy and the laity to “recover the original freshness of the Gospel.” In the new pope’s missionary church, the “doors should always be open,” he wrote. The 84-page document spanned Catholic topics from social justice to interfaith dialogue, but Francis’ comments and critcisms of the free market, hardly new ground for him or for the Catholic Church, opened the door for supporters of aggressive market intervention by government to claim the pope as their own—yet free markets provide the very environment in which the pope's professed goals would be easiest to pursue.
“There's a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can't really sign on to,” wrote Slate’s Matthew Yglesias as he highlighted several comments in the exhortation that focused on the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism. For example, in one passage pulled by Yglesias, the pope hit on a favorite hobby horse of the left, income inequality: "While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules."
But Yglesias skips the next sentence, even though he picks up another passage just a couple of sentences later. That comment? “Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their purchasing power."
Opponents of the United States’ ballooning debt, which included Barack Obama before he became president, often frame their opposition as a moral issue: Governments shouldn’t borrow from future generations to spend on current ones. That intergenerational injustice is often covered here at Reason. Yet it would be silly to argue that therefore the pope would oppose, say, raising the debt limit. Like caring for the poor, however, spending within your means is a Christian value, too, as is not stealing or coveting your neighbor’s things.
Nevertheless, even if every passage related to economics is used to co-opt the pope’s message to the billion-plus members of his church for an advantage in temporal politics, it would be inadequate and inaccurate. The “stuff about Jesus” should come as no surprise, as it is fundamental to the pope’s thinking. When exhorting government and financial leaders to work “to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare,” the pope asks, “Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans?” In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis writes that politics, “though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, insomuch as it seeks the common good,” choosing to describe politics charitably. At one point, while discussing the Christian concept of solidarity in pushing for social change, the pope writes that “[c]hanging structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual.” Yet it’d be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to create a political class of selfless actors interested in people’s well-being and not their own enrichment.
Last week, Reason’s Matt Welch called the pope’s comments on economics “embarrassing in their wrongness,” as the evidence shows free markets lifting a record-breaking number of people out of poverty in the last century. The pope’s omission and obliviousness to those facts on the ground, Welch wrote, advertised his own ignorance. Welch concluded that the pope was “not primarily interested in spreading truth, but rather in exciting popular passions.” And, indeed, Pope Francis’ exhortation was meant to excite at least the passion of Catholics, to whom it was addressed. As such, his economic naiveté is born of optimism.
Dignified work, education, and healthcare are things any good Christian ought to help others gain access to; social justice, like family values before it, meant something in a religious context before being politicized, respectively, by the partisan left and the right. And the pope is right that individual acts of charity are not enough (he also said welfare ought to be a temporary measure, but don’t tell the liberals); structures that improve access to work, education, and healthcare do far more. But the faith in government and political leaders is misplaced.
For example, in the United States, politicians pushing the Affordable Care Act claimed the legislation was a solution to a moral problem, lack of access to healthcare. Yet the legislation didn’t deal with increasing access to healthcare, but on imposing controls on the market for insurance and on healthcare. While hundreds of thousands of Americans have learned they’re losing their insurance plans in the last few months, the Catholic Church learned what Obamacare had in store for it far earlier—the so-called contraceptive mandate is far from what the Church would consider “dignified,” and is being challenged in court on religious liberty grounds. The Archdiocese of Washington, DC argued the Obama Administration was implementing a “conscious political strategy to marginalize and delegitimize” Catholic teaching. The Archbishop of Chicago warns Obamacare rules could put an end to Catholic hospitals all together; no dignity and no healthcare.
And despite all that, America’s system of government is among the most tolerant of the freedom of religion on the planet, as the pope’s concern in his exhortation for the persecution of Christians and other people of faith elsewhere in the world attests. The attempt to politicize healthcare has provided ample illustration that political leaders are interested primarily in control, and not in actually increasing access to anything. “Realities are greater than ideas,” the pope wrote, a principle related to the “incarnation of the word and its being put into practice.” But not everyone has the Holy Spirit.
Free markets, and freedom, work because they are realities, not just ideas. This summer, Reason’s Ronald Bailey responded to a juvenile anti-libertarian attack centered around the idea that because no libertarian utopia exists, the philosophy ought to be considered discredited. Bailey disassembled the argument, and showed how actual existing policies centered on principles of freedom (from liberalized trade to school choice) have improved the well-being of humanity. Pope Francis could learn something here. His attack on “unfettered” capitalism shouldn’t be construed as an attack on the free market, as no such system exists today. As a former citizen of Argentina, Pope Francis’ primary exposure to capitalism was likely the corrupt and cronyist kind prevalent there, and, increasingly, around the world. That’s the reality. And as the Catholic Church’s experience with Obamacare shows, the desire by the political classes to accumulate raw power even in advanced liberal democracies is a reality, too. Freedom is an idea that can improve those realities. The pope claims the “invisible hand of the free market” can’t be trusted to foster “growth in justice,” which "requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.” Yet only the free market can guarantee just growth. The pope’s ideas are not grounded in realities, but in an unbridled optimism about the nature of political leaders. Free markets, on the other hand, when unencumbered by self-interested government intervention, allow for a measure of self-organization and emergent order. They’re a place where, contrary to the pope’s inclinations, Christian solidarity with the poor and marginalized has a better chance of succeeding than in the top-down power structures that have tended, and continue, to snuff it out.