Pope Francis’ option for the poor and his critique of contemporary market capitalism fall squarely within the Church’s tradition of social teaching, one that begins in Christianity’s first centuries and has continued to the present day in various encyclicals. And anyone who accuses him of Marxism or any other “ism” knows neither Marxism nor Catholic social doctrine.
So the pope has insisted in an interview published at the back of a book about his social thought by two experienced Vatican reporters, Giacomo Galeazzi and Andrea Tornielli, entitled “Questa Economia Uccide” (“This Economy Kills”). The phrase comes from his November 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), in which Pope Francis deplored “an economy of exclusion and inequality,” noting that “such an economy kills.” How can it be news, he asked, that the stock market loses two points but not that an old man dies from the cold?
Some of the claims in Evangelii Gaudium had a frosty reception from some commentators who argued that the pope was adopting a left-wing view of the market. One claim of his in particular met with objection — that trickle-down economics, according to which wealth creation permeates down to the poor, had never been confirmed by the facts — pointed to wealth growing and poverty rates falling across the world. (For example, the 2014 United Nations Millennium Development Goals Report charts a sharp drop in the proportion of undernourished people in developing regions from 24 to 12 percent between 1990 and 2013.)
The problem, the pope’s critics argued, was not market capitalism but the lack of it, and that to tackle poverty, it is vital for free trade and capitalism to keep spreading. As one Catholic who criticized the pope’s comments put it on the Forbes magazine website: “The market-based economic system that he is complaining about is exactly the economic system that is in the process of solving the problem he identifies,” wrote Tim Worstall, who described himself as “spitting with rage” over the pope’s remarks.
Globalization may have lifted many out of poverty and led to an overall increase in wealth in absolute terms, Pope Francis tells Galeazzi and Tornielli, but new forms of poverty have also risen as a result, while the disparity between rich and poor has increased. But his main objection is that the current global market depends on a mentality that permits what he has often called a “throwaway culture.” When money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced to mere instruments of a social and economic system that rests on profound inequality. The logic of that mentality is that children and old people — not to mention the huge numbers of unemployed young people in wealthy countries — are cast aside. “Let us seek to build a society and economy where the good of human beings, rather than money, is at the center,” the pope says.
Economy, ecology linked
Because of these unacceptable dimensions of the contemporary market, he adds, he cannot resign himself to a passive acceptance that the market will resolve, of its own accord, the challenge of poverty. “Markets and financial speculation cannot enjoy an absolute autonomy,” he says, before adding a call for “programs, mechanisms and processes geared to a better distribution of resources, to job creation, and to the improving the lot of those who are excluded.” Such a call is likely to reinforce his critics’ suspicion that Pope Francis advocates greater or at least active state intervention in the economy.
The pope goes on to link defects in the functioning of market capitalism to environmental devastation, the issue he will address in a major encyclical on ecology expected to be released in the summer. “If we do not take care of our brothers and sisters, and of all the created world, destruction will follow,” he warns, adding that such concern for the environment has nothing to do with ideologies that see mankind itself as the problem. “God has put man and woman at the tip of creation,” he notes, “and has entrusted to them the earth”; yet mankind destroys the earth when it fails to care for God’s creation and instead seeks to be its master. He gives three examples: nuclear weapons, genetic manipulation and gender theories that fail to respect the created order.
Treatment of the poor
Galeazzi and Tornielli put to him the accusation of “pauperism,” an ideology that romanticizes the poor. Such an ideology, the pope answers, is a caricature of both the Gospel and of poverty. Matthew 25 makes clear we will be judged on whether we attended to the needs of the poor, to those who suffer or are lacking. “Is this pauperism?” the pope asks. “No, it’s the Gospel.” The Gospel, he adds, “does not condemn the rich but the worship of wealth, that idolatry which renders people deaf to the cry of the poor.”
Pope Francis goes on to talk of Pope St. John XXIII’s call for the Church to be “of everyone, but especially of the poor,” a call which restored the emphasis of the first centuries of Christianity. If he were to repeat some of the homilies of St. John Chrysostom or St. Ambrose about giving the poor what belongs to them, says Pope Francis, he would soon be excused of being a Marxist. According to St. Ambrose, says Pope Francis, “private poverty is never an unconditional and absolute right, and no one is authorized to reserve for their exclusive use what exceeds their needs, when others lack what is necessary.” Or again, St. John Chrysostom affirmed that not to share with the poor was to rob and kill them. Such views are straight from the Gospel and are part of the tradition of the Church, says Pope Francis: They “are not an invention of communism, nor is it necessary to turn them into an ideology, as has so often happened.” (Marxism, he says clearly in the interview, “is wrong.”)
“When the Church calls us to overcome what it has called the ‘globalization of indifference,’ it is far from any political interest or ideology,” Francis said. “Moved only by the words of Jesus, the Church wishes only to play its part in building a world where people watch over and take care of each other.”
Austen Ivereigh is author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).