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Samuel Gregg has posted an article at National Review Online titled “Pope Francis: A Man of the Left?” Given the controversial nature of my recent post about the pope’s views on social justice, I think it is appropriate to elaborate on some points as well as respond to Gregg’s. I believe this is important especially since every time I turn on the television, listen to the radio, or read the news, the pope is being discussed—his views on poverty in particular. It is also important given the power of political propaganda in our country that often uses the plight of the poor to promote a leftist agenda.
Gregg begins by saying,
It was inevitable. With the election of a new man to the Chair of Peter, we’re already seen an effort to portray him as “socially conservative” yet “economically progressive.” This seems to be the way virtually every pope has been presented since Leo XIII’s long reign. And it’s a profound illustration of the limits of applying secular political categories to something like the Catholic Church.
The church is a religious organization and, of course, does not make public policy on matters of economics or politics, but its principles inform economic and political thought and as such do impact those who vote and who make policy. This is because “socially conservative” and “economically progressive” have underlying moral principles that the Catholic Church either supports or condemns. These categories have meaning and are reflective of people’s views whether they want to admit to those categories or not. Given the church’s power of influence, it is perfectly legitimate, and yes inevitable, to analyze the views and teachings of church leaders within these categories—with an eye of course to the fact that the church does not create economic policy through papal decrees or otherwise.
Gregg then makes the following point:
No one in their right mind would describe Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., as an ecclesiastical Milton Friedman or a closet free marketer. Plainly, he’s not. But Francis does have two particular concerns with regard to economic issues. One is the naked materialism and consumerism that disfigures so many peoples’ lives. No Catholic is going to affirm people seeking their salvation in the endless acquisition of stuff. Francis’s asceticism is a clear repudiation of that mindset.
No one is questioning Bergoglio’s modesty, charity, or simplicity. He is clearly more ascetic than other popes and obviously a compassionate man. When it comes to a model of humility, this is needed in a materialistic, atheistic, narcissistic world. Wouldn’t we all love for Obama to follow his example and quit taking expensive vacations, throwing extravagant parties, and spending taxpayer money on personal trivialities? Alas, our benevolent leader more closely resembles French aristocrats than Franciscan ascetics.
However, even within Christian circles it is dangerous to set “economic individualism” (which is Adam Smith’s term for capitalism) against the “simple life.” This is a fallacy, and it has been one commonly held by many ascetics throughout the centuries. They often see pursuit of wealth, economic self-interest, and even private property (and certainly profits) as sinful or at least unnecessary temptations. They stress universal brotherhood, altruism, austerity, and collectivist ideals—all principles that can undermine economic individualism if applied wrongly to political systems. They see “prosperity as an evil” much as socialists like Herbert Marcuse do who equate profit and wealth with “naked materialism.”
The “ascetic” as opposed to “charitable” mindset, while noble in its service and valuable within the context of the church, can run contrary to economic individualism when applied to political principles and to the values of personal achievement and material gain through hard, competitive work—values that we are losing in this country. The history of the Catholic Church itself reveals this tension between the ascetics and those of other orders.
It is helpful, when looking at this pope, to take into consideration the political and economic implications of his ascetic views. Though he might not comment on economic policies per se, it is legitimate to question whether his ascetic principles in these matters will stand in opposition to capitalism as they are lauded by Catholics throughout the world. (It would be helpful to explore the extent and quality of his ascetic views, the historic understanding and application of asceticism, and how these principles apply to modernity, but there is no place for that in this already lengthy post.)
Some might see this challenge to capitalism (and I mean capitalism, not crony capitalism) as a good thing or an inconsequential thing, but it is helpful to remember what capitalism really stands for—it is, as Smith wrote, “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty.” This is a moral good that cannot be lost in the call to serve the poor. Again, an unholy dichotomy should not be erected here. Natural liberty and free market principles do not necessitate selfishness and disdain for the poor. Quite the contrary, they create more resources to care for the poor.
As for the statement, “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period.” Of course, no one is saying that we shouldn’t help the poor. (And the implication that defenders of capitalism and the value of wealth are opposed to the poor is offensive.) The church has been helping the poor since the days of its creation—something that is a significant point because poverty has been around even before capitalism. Free markets, private property, and self-interested (not selfish) competition is not the root evil of poverty. In fact, they help reduce poverty. It is important to remember that while we strive to alleviate suffering, give out of our abundance, and even implement policies that help the poor in developing nations, we should not do it by punitively taking away from the rich or by setting up austere ascetic and altruistic ideals as being essentially better and more noble than liberty and the individual’s pursuit of happiness through hard work and economic success.
It is also important to remember that caring for the poor is a responsibility (and privilege) of the church precisely because it has redemptive implications for society. Charity cannot be politically motivated. Benedict XVI said, “Whenever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic.” As long as the pope’s message about the poor is kept within the framework of the church’s mission and with an altruism that is more in line with the teachings of Christ than Auguste Comte, then it will be a blessing. If it steps beyond that line, it will, indeed, become demonic.
Gregg emphasizes that Bergoglio is basically a product of his environment when it comes to his statements on wealth redistribution, “social sins,” “social debt,” “social justice,” wealth inequalities, and corporate greed. He points out that the pope does not support liberation theology, which is certainly a good thing. However, while context is certainly important in anyone’s life and in anyone’s formation of morals and principles as well as political action, Bergoglio has not lived in a social or philosophical vacuum, and he does not come from a time in the past before economic individualism burst onto the scene. He is not a historical figure; he is a modern man who lives, yes, among the evils described by Gregg of Argentina’s decadent environment, but he is also a learned man, well aware of various economic philosophies, the writings of capitalists as well as socialists, and controversies raging over these issues throughout the globe.
There are plenty of capitalists who have come from communist countries and whose free market views have been formed within the context of economic disasters and statist regimes. But Bergoglio doesn’t move much in that direction, it seems. He uses the language of the progressive. He criticizes corporations and wealth inequalities and “consumerism” instead of heavily focusing on government abuses, social solidarity, nationalized banking, state control of resources, and collectivism. He does this, it appears, out of choice, not out of necessity.
However, Gregg might be right that it is too much to expect the pope to be a “free marketer.” That is clearly true, but the fact that he is not a “free marketer” has implications in a country such as ours. We’re teetering on the edge of losing the war against socialism, and the pope is highly influential to many Catholic voters who support socialistic principles in the name of the poor. I would hope the pope realizes this (which I’m sure he does) and understands the context of his words outside of Argentina and makes adjustments in his communications that will be supportive of individual liberty and charity.
Finally, Gregg concludes, saying,
My suspicion is that Pope Francis is not going to invest enormous intellectual energy in proposing various schemes for economic reform. He will certainly continue to champion the interests of the poor against those who want to maintain the corrupt status quo prevailing throughout many developing nations. There is such a thing as economic justice and the Catholic Church has a definite view of what that looks like. But inferring that the new pope is going to bring Occupy Wall Street to the Vatican takes more than a stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s a form of Kirchneristic wishful thinking that simply doesn’t do justice to the wisdom and sanctity of the man.
When it comes to “economic justice” and the Catholic Church’s “definite view,” what is it then? Now, today, in this modern context in which it is being bandied about in perpetual conversation on every news outlet? Is it simply caring for the poor? I hope so, but it looks and sounds more like progressive social justice, and whether the Catholic Church likes it or not—and not meaning any disrespect to the pope’s wisdom and sanctity—this is how people around the globe are interpreting it. Just this morning, on CBS guest commentators on the pope extolled his virtues of economic justice for the poor in a way that was clearly progressive and hostile to capitalism.
As long as people continue to interpret Begoglia’s actions and words in this manner, maybe he should think about clarifying his position and come out in favor of natural liberty, personal responsibility, economic individualism, and charity to the poor—all of which are good for society and supported by biblical principles. Somehow, I don’t think he will. This doesn’t mean he will bring Occupy Wall Street or the extreme views of the Kirchners to the Vatican. I for one have not said he will. But his apparent left-leaning (though not Marxist) views will serve as fuel in the conflagration of unrest and envy that is growing in this country—a fire that is being flamed every day with growing stridency in the “name of the poor.” It is the hope of many of us that we douse those flames before we become the disaster that is Argentina.
This is a reality conservative Catholics are going to have to face and one that all Americans who value charity and “economic individualism”—not asceticism and “economic justice”—are going to have to deal with.