In the past week, there has been much discord on the economic position of the Catholic Church. The online sparring began as a result of Pope Francis’ recent address on May 16 to the four newly accredited Ambassadors to the Vatican. In his remarks to these new diplomats, Francis argued:
Certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident. People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way. One cause of this situation, in my opinion, is in the our relationship with money, and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society. … The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.
Francis went on to assert that in these circumstances, “solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy.” This results from “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets,” thereby crippling nations from being able to provide for the common good.
Unsurprisingly, commentators at certain sites, including the National Catholic Reporter and the (non-Catholic) Telegraph, were all too willing to spin this as a mere economic speech in which Francis was calling for increased government intervention and denouncing capitalism. Never mind the fact that he never uttered the words “capitalism” or “government intervention.”
Instead, Francis’ message focused on the need “for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone,” (italics added). Characterizing his address as a “type of economic examination of conscience,” the less political National Catholic Register reported:
John Tabor, deputy director of Good Works, a U.K. Church initiative uniting professionals and entrepreneurs to serve the common good, read the Pope’s words as a need for “balance” between personal faith and market success.
“The one does not exclude the other,” he said. “The marketplace can and does derive a fuller sense of perspective from engaging with value systems such as Catholic social teaching, which sees the dignity of the individual as well as the common good as not only desirable but achievable.”
As Phil Lawler pointed out, every time a pope “denounces selfishness and materialism,” political pundits erroneously equate such denouncements with having “sided with socialists.” But not only is it silly to view socialism as an ideology opposed to materialism, it’s just as silly to suggest capitalism cannot be moderated by morality.
For as the Pope suggested, the question is about how much solidarity exists with the poor. This can absolutely be a societal question (and an individual one) without its being a governmental one. And exactly as Lawler affirmed, “a powerful argument can be made that capitalism, tempered by a Christian moral framework, is the best available solution to the problem of poverty. Nothing that Pope Francis said–nothing that a Pope has said–would rule out that approach” (italics added).
Samuel Gregg over at Crisis provides a more appropriate perspective on what the Pope means by “poverty” and “the poor.” Gregg begins by stating that there certainly is (and should be) a concern for the materially poor but goes on to expand the definition of “poverty”:
For Christians, indifference in the face of such disparities [of material poverty] is not optional. But in understanding Francis’s words about poverty, we should remember the pope is an orthodox Catholic. He’s not a philosophical or practical materialist. Hence Francis’s conception of poverty and the poor goes far beyond conventional secular understandings of these subjects.
Gregg then quotes Francis as describing “our poverty” as that of “the flesh of Christ,” understanding, as Gregg says, that “‘poor in spirit’ means being reduced to a beggar. … those of us–poor, wealthy, middle-class–who recognize our sins and beg Christ to save us” (original italics).
Herein comes the solidarity that’s so crucial to Catholic social teaching. We’re more than just our pocketbooks; our respective wealths neither determine our moral worth nor suffice as “charity” for the “poor.” As the Pope remarked earlier this spring, when the Church becomes a mere NGO, “she loses salt, has no flavor, is only an empty organization.”
So when Pope Francis finishes his first encyclical (to be titled Beati pauperes), don’t expect his discussion of poverty to be limited to merely the material. Not that it’ll stop the progressives from reading it as such.