A Response to Samuel Gregg: “Pope Francis: A Man of the Left?”

 

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. 

There are 15 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @rayconandlindacon

    Our respect for the Seat of Peter and the Magisterium is that of an outsider.  We can only speak with honesty, however, when it comes to the subject of ‘social justice’.

    It is a temptation to characterize Pope Francis’ position as obtuse.  That he lived in a triumph of socialism such as Argentina and cannot draw the obvious conclusion that socialism does not bring justice, social or otherwise, to the poor, but does provide opulence to the rulers, is a moral blindness that implies a submission to propaganda, rather than considered thought.

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    @CorneliusJuliusSebastian

    Denise, we conservative Catholics are facing it. Beleive me, we already were.  I was sparring with two liberal, statist for the poor, only yesterday.  One of them, a Jesuit.  The key to winning the battle with Catholics is pointing out to them how much better the Church does in caring for the poor than the government and for them to imagine how much more it could do if more of lay Catholics’ money was available to go to the Church than to the state in taxes.  That and just relentlessly pointing out to them how abysmally ineffectual government anti-poverty programs have been and are.

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    @katievs

    I’ll say what I said on your other thread, Denise.  To impose the modern progressivist meaning of the term “social justice” on the Pope is to misunderstand him.

    The progressive tendency to identify “social justice” with state-enforced income re-distribution is a caricature of the Catholic meaning of that term.

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    @Gretchen

    First, let me say, Denise, that you are a most welcome addition to the Ricochet conversation and I hope you keep posting.

    KC Mulville:

    The technique is the warning to be careful about what someone says, because someone somewhere might misinterpret it, and use it against us. 

     · 3 hours ago

    I take Denise’s point to be more that if progressives have poisoned language, those who do not wish to be taken as progressives need to use other language lest they be misunderstood.

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    @KCMulville
    raycon and lindacon: 

    To demand justice for the poor means to demand that those in power be the ones to provide that justice.  Add the word ‘social’, and you are demanding that they, instead, exploit those who have achieved wealth and power, however innocently.

    Understood, but there’s a difference between what the church is calling for, and how the local politicians interpret it for their own advantage.

    Historically, the church’s call for social justice took an important turn with the encyclical “Rerum Novarum.”  You can’t understand the Catholic notion of social justice without knowing that encyclical through and through. That encyclical established work as a basic right. No individual has a right to milk the state for his material needs, but if a man is willing to work, he should be allowed to have a decent paycheck so he can provide for his family. Rerum Novarum was all about work, and its absolutely foundational role in the daily life of every person. Everything else follows from that basic teaching.

    Continued …

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    @KCMulville

    Continued …

    The reason why a job is “social” is obvious. A man worker needs others to provide a job, as well as others to buy what the company offers, and so on. The whole social fabric is involved. So when an honest man who’s willing to work can’t get a job, society has failed him.

    That’s what the church’s social justice teaching analyzes.

    It’s easy to imagine how different cultures interpret the idea that society has failed its members, especially because they can’t find basic work. The first, immature response is to blame unseen, nefarious forces …”they” are preventing us from us from working; capitalists, and so on.  Of course, in some poor areas, injustice really is inflicted by greedy individuals, who acquire power and use it to steal every last available penny, local workers be damned. The poor in those areas naturally assume that social injustice everywhere is so simple.

    It falls to us, who grasp the mechanics of a dynamic economy … not to condemn that immaturity, but to teach it wisely. We conservatives, simply because we know better, are responsible to correct and improve that understanding.

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    @KCMulville

    The other parts of the “social justice” teachings sort of spin off from the basic economic idea of a man having a right to work. 

    Look, let’s not kid each other … the world also has a lot of people who, with the slightest provocation, will use any excuse to condemn others and glorify themselves. The church has plenty of them, that’s for sure.

    But I’m not worried that the church’s social justice teachings will “enflame” a leftist revolution. Truth will out. The fact that they keep trying the easy and simplistic remedies to social injustice will just prove how hollow they are.

    Have faith!

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    @Devereaux

    Denise, I am thoroughly intrigued by your essay. I believe you speak with real worry, for possibly good reason.

    I would only point out that this pope has only been installed for less than a week. There is much WE need to still learn about him. I suspect, once I heard that he came in second to Ratzinger at the last conclave, that he is quite well known to the bishops. If they could have selected a Benedict 16, I would hope their selection of Francis I to be good.

    I would also expect that this man has thought about the running of the church for some time. It may have been a bit of a surprise to us that B16 retired, but perhaps it wasn’t so among the insiders.

    And no, I’m not a Catholic.

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    @KCMulville

    Denise, you certainly raise a lot of questions. I’m glad that you do, but I don’t necessarily agree with where you’re going.

    Frankly, I spot a familiar rhetorical technique. It happens on these questions, and it also happens with social conservatives speaking about social issues. It happens, really, in almost all hearty debates.

    The technique is the warning to be careful about what someone says, because someone somewhere might misinterpret it, and use it against us. 

    • Social conservatives should pipe down about abortion, and Catholics should shut up about contraception, because the media will portray that as being “”against women.” 
    • We should pipe down about illegal immigration, because it might offend Hispanics.

    It’s the same technique, each in a different context. Take what someone says, and either downplay it or discount it because although it might be true, it might be misinterpreted.

    To which my answer is … so what? Anyone can misinterpret anything – and will. That’s life in the big city. Besides, our opponents are going to try to twist everything we say no matter what we do, so what else is new?

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    @KCMulville

    Besides, remember the distinction between “social justice” in the United States versus other countries.

    When other countries worry about social justice, they’re talking about the reality that unless they play ball with the local power-broker, they lose their job. It’s like living in a mafia neighborhood, or in a gang neighborhood.  You do things the way we tell you, or you lose your job, or something worse. There’s only one factory in a small town, so unless you do what the job owner wants, you lose that job. Your want your kid to go to a technical school? Play ball. You object to the fact that we beat up that troublemaker down the street? Fine. We’ll beat you up next.

    We Americans forget how incredibly lucky we are.

    It isn’t like your local liberal activist, fresh from four years of self-loathing academic indoctrination, who finds himself exaggerating about “social injustice” just so he can be a hero in fighting it. You know, the community organizer types. When those idiots talk about “social justice” in the United States, it’s far different from what Bergoglio and others talk about.

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    @rayconandlindacon

    KC  Your point is well taken, but ‘social justice’ as used here is a perversion of the unmodified word ‘justice’.  That simple ‘clarification’, ‘social’, modifies it to mean that actions against those who are outside the considered ‘target’ of the word need to be, themselves, exploited.

    To demand justice for the poor means to demand that those in power be the ones to provide that justice.  Add the word ‘social’, and you are demanding that they, instead, exploit those who have achieved wealth and power, however innocently.

    In most of the world, government avarice is displayed by the adoption of socialism.  That leveling down of the governed brings no justice to the poor.  It instead diminishes the resources needed for the poor to ever rise by their own efforts.

    Never forget, America has been planting or supporting socialism throughout the underdeveloped world since WWII.  The world bank and the IMF both benefit socialists while making no demands whatsoever that they move to an equitable economy that can produce healthy and free competition.

    The very powers that exploit the poor receive their strength from America, and their justification from words like those from the Pope.

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    @DCMcAllister

    This is the kind of thing I’m concerned about.

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    @Gretchen
    Denise McAllister: This is the kind of thing I’m concerned about. · 0 minutes ago

    This piece acknowledges his concern for the poor, but stops short of saying that he favors the state as the vehicle for helping the poor. (Of course you and I know that is a given for progressives.) I will feel a lot better when (if) he explains his views along the lines your have articulated.

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    @DCMcAllister
    Maggie Somavilla

    This piece acknowledges his concern for the poor, but stops short of saying that he favors the state as the vehicle for helping the poor. (Of course you and I know that is a given for progressives.) I will feel a lot better when (if) he explains his views along the lines your have articulated.

    One thing is clear, and I’ve known this, that he’s not a Marxist. I don’t expect that kind of extreme view. But his progressive leanings can be a hindrance to the goals of capitalists in this country. I find this to be an interesting quote from Michael Lee, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University: “When you look at the economy and Pope Francis, you won’t be able to find somebody further from the Paul Ryan budget in the world,” Lee said. He also reminds us that the U.S. bishops spoke out against Republicans for proposed cuts to social services during the budget debate last year. 

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    @Gretchen
    Denise McAllister

    Maggie Somavilla

    This piece acknowledges his concern for the poor, but stops short of saying that he favors the state as the vehicle for helping the poor. (Of course you and I know that is a given for progressives.) I will feel a lot better when (if) he explains his views along the lines your have articulated.

    One thing is clear, and I’ve known this, that he’s not a Marxist. I don’t expect that kind of extreme view. But his progressive leanings can be a hindrance to the goals of capitalists in this country. I find this to be an interesting quote from Michael Lee, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University: “When you look at the economy and Pope Francis, you won’t be able to find somebody further from the Paul Ryan budget in the world,” Lee said. He also reminds us that the U.S. bishops spoke out against Republicans for proposed cuts to social services during the budget debate last year.  · 0 minutes ago

    Alas.

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