Pope Francis and the media: Missing the forest for a couple of trees

After reading the gasps of despair from some of my fellow conservatives over Pope Francis’ remarks in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), I decided to make that my holiday reading this weekend.  Based on the laments from some quarters — and the cheers of joy from others — I half-expected the Pontiff to have declared socialism a new economic doctrine of the Catholic Church.  Instead, I found that Pope Francis not only hadn’t abandoned the legacy of his predecessor John Paul II, who fought communism and oppression in eastern Europe, but that on economics Francis didn’t say anything that the Catechism promulgated in John Paul II’s papacy doesn’t already teach.


In fact, Evangelii Gaudium has to be cherry-picked for the kind of reaction it received on economics.  The essay talks at length about the need for the laity and the ordained to roll up their sleeves and get to work in the world and evangelize through action and not just proclamation.  The entire Church should “smell like sheep,” Francis writes, rather than keeping their hands clean and pontificating from afar, pun intended. Francis includes economics as an area where Catholics have to work to correct injustices, but Francis emphasizes the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity … just as John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the Church taught over the last three decades or more, as I note in my column for The Fiscal Times today:

Near the end of the exhortation, Francis notes that the state has a responsibility to promote the common good through “the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.” The key concept of subsidiarity in Catholic doctrine rejects Marxism and command economies, teaching that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (paragraph 1883).

It specifically rejects “all forms of collectivism” and “sets limits for state interventions” (paragraph 1885). Subsidiarity and solidarity together promotes “the just hierarchy of values” (paragraph 1886), and opposes “[t]he inversion of means and ends” that “engenders unjust structures” that render the Christian life “difficult and almost impossible” (paragraph 1887). When that happens, the Church teaches that inner conversion will result in individual action to bring remedies to social institutions and unjust structures. “This is the path to charity,” the Catechism instructs, “that is, of the love of God and neighbor.”

Pope Francis uses a small part of Evangelii Gaudium to challenge Catholics not to invert the means over the ends, i.e., to fall so in love with economic philosophies as to become blinded to their pitfalls and negative outcomes. Far from demanding top-down control over economies, Francis is exhorting Catholics to act personally when they see injustices, and in that effort bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.


The anger over the criticisms of the outcomes in many capitalist economies comes through in Francis’ writings, which doesn’t dwell on alternate economic structures much at all.  But that’s a story in itself:

Finally, one has to consider just what this means for Catholics who see market-based economics as an overall benefit rather than a hindrance to human flourishing. History shows that properly-regulated use of private property in market-oriented systems delivers the fastest and broadest rise in living standards than any other system devised, especially centrally-controlled economies that produced massive disasters throughout the 20th century.

If Pope Francis takes dysfunctional capitalism to task in Evangelii Gaudium almost exclusively, that is a silent testament to the recent recognition of that historical track record and the discrediting of those monstrous command economies that created a lot worse evils than just poverty, although they produced more than their fair share of that as well.

Primarily, Francis warns about adopting ideologies as doctrine rather than seeking the best ends for the most people.  Ross Douthat grasps the difference:

And this is where Francis’s vision should matter to American Catholics who usually cast ballots for Republican politicians. The pope’s words shouldn’t inspire them to convert en masse to liberalism, or to worry that the throne of Peter has been seized by a Marxist anti-pope. But they should encourage a much greater integration of Catholic and conservative ideas than we’ve seen since “compassionate conservatism” collapsed, and inspire Catholics to ask more — often much more — of the Republican Party, on a range of policy issues.

Here my journalist friend’s “loyal opposition” line oversimplified the options for Catholic political engagement. His Catholic liberalism didn’t go into eclipse because it failed to let the Vatican dictate every jot and tittle of its social agenda. Rather, it lost influence because it failed to articulate any kind of clear Catholic difference, within the bigger liberal tent, on issues like abortion, sex and marriage.

Now the challenge for conservative Catholics is to do somewhat better in our turn, and to spend the Francis era not in opposition but seeking integration — meaning an economic vision that remains conservative, but in the details reminds the world that our Catholic faith comes first.


Matt Lewis articulated the challenge last week:

As Daniel Bell’s classic title, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, implies, there is a fundamental tension within conservatism. On one hand, we stress community and family values – and the uplifting nature of entrepreneurism. Yet, as Bell notes, “[O]n the marketing side, the sale of goods, packaged in the glossy images of glamour and sex, promotes a hedonistic way of life whose premise is the voluptuous gratification of the lineaments of desire. The consequence of this contradiction…is that a corporation finds its people straight by day and swingers by night.”

Conservatives clearly must defend free markets against the fatal conceit that big government knows best — that collectivism and redistribution are somehow more moral alternatives. History proves they are not.

But in the process of defending capitalism, we must also avoid even the appearance of a “greed is good” mentality — both in our hearts and in our rhetoric.

This begins at home. Just as we have a corporate responsibility, as individuals we must strive to be generous and compassionate.

The actual point of Evangelii Gaudium isn’t to debate economics anyway. It’s to motivate and propel Catholics into service to right a broad spectrum of injustices through personal action.  Peter Ingemi points out that Pope Francis spends a lot more time highlighting those injustices and calling people to action than he does dealing in economics:

That might be a surprise to those who only heard the reports on economics but there is more, a LOT more.  The Pope also toucheds on some vital issues  the media has been dodging:

Like human trafficking

 Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved?  Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses,in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour? (211)

The persecution of Christians worldwide:

We also evangelize when we attempt to confront the various challenges which can arise.  On occasion these may take the form of veritable attacks on religious freedom or new persecutions directed against Christians; in some countries these have reached alarming levels of hatred and violence.(61)
And specifically challenges to Muslim nations
We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! (233)
These are all huge issues internationally but the media in their rush to turn the Pope into a socialist somehow missed them.

While the left may not have noticed, those issues, there are other parts of EVANGELII GAUDIUM that I suspect they simply want to suppress such as his challenges to a phony sense of “diversity”,

When we, for our part, aspire to diversity, we become self-enclosed, exclusive and divisive; similarly, whenever we attempt to create unity on the basis of our human calculations, we end up imposing a monolithic uniformity. This is not helpful for the Church’s mission (131)


That certainly won’t play well in academic halls[.]

To talk exclusively about Pope Francis’ remarks on the dysfunctions of capitalism is not just to miss the forest for the trees — it misses the forest for just a couple of trees. When read in the context of Catholic teaching on economics, it becomes clear that this is no innovation, but a broad restatement of traditional Catholic teaching that emphasizes personal engagement. That, however, doesn’t make for big headlines.

Update: George Weigel writes that the only revolution in which Pope Francis expresses an interest is one among Catholics:

Pope Francis also grasps the nature of the great cultural crisis of post-modernity: the rise of a new Gnosticism, in which everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable and subject to human willfulness, nothing is simply given, and human beings are reduced, by self-delusion, legal definition or judicial dictums to mere bundles of desires.

The pope is passionately concerned about the poor, and he knows that poverty in the 21st century takes many forms. It can be found in the grinding material poverty of his native Buenos Aires, caused by decades of corruption, indifference, and the church’s failures to catechize Argentina’s economic and political leaders. But poverty can also be found in the soul-withering spiritual desert of those who measure their humanity by what they have rather than who they are, and who judge others by the same materialist yardstick. Then there is the ethical impoverishment of moral relativism, which dumbs down human aspiration, impedes common work for the common good in society, and inevitably leads to social fragmentation and personal unhappiness.

As he wrote in “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis is not a man of “political ideology.” He knows that “business is a vocation and a noble vocation,” if ordered to the common good and the empowerment of the poor. When he criticizes the social, economic or political status quo, he does so as a pastor who is “interested only in helping all those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking that is more humane, noble, and fruitful.”

Pope Francis is a revolutionary. The revolution he proposes, however, is not a matter of economic or political prescription, but a revolution in the self-understanding of the Catholic Church: a re-energizing return to the pentecostal fervor and evangelical passion from which the church was born two millennia ago, and a summons to mission that accelerates the great historical transition from institutional-maintenance Catholicism to the Church of the New Evangelization.

One cannot understand Francis or Evangelii Gaudium‘s critique of dysfunctional capitalism without the context of his ringside seat to Argentina’s version of it. Agree or not with those criticisms, it’s clear that Pope Francis isn’t calling for socialism and government-run command economies as a solution, nor that he’s innovating from his predecessors at all.


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