May 23 2014
Vicki E. Alger
It seems that a lot of folks are trying to make Pope Francis into their own image and likeness these days. A recent effort tries to portray the Pope as a socialist. Anyone even remotely familiar with Catholic teaching and history would know that since the Church’s earliest days when Christians were being fed to the lions for sport, the Catholic Church has always solidly stood for the dignity and liberty of the human person against the abuses of expansive government in every aspect of life—including economics.
The latest round of misinformation stems from a meeting at the Vatican earlier this month between Pope Francis and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, along with other U.N. officials. During that meeting, according to an official Vatican press release, Pope Francis urged world leaders to recall that:
…’at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity’ may be found in ‘the encounter between Jesus Christ and the rich tax collector Zacchaeus, as a result of which Zacchaeus [the individual, not the Roman State] made a radical decision of sharing and justice, because his conscience had been awakened by the gaze of Jesus. … [which] ought to awaken the conscience of political and economic agents and lead them to generous and courageous decisions with immediate results. … Today, in concrete terms, an awareness of the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters whose life is sacred and inviolable from conception to natural death must lead us to share with complete freedom [emphasis added] the goods which God’s providence has placed in our hands, material goods but also intellectual and spiritual ones, and to give back generously and lavishly whatever we may have earlier unjustly refused to others.’
Of course, various left-of-center media outlets ignored Pope Francis’ insistence on sharing “with complete freedom” and instead twisted a subsequent reference to “legitimate redistribution” into sensationalized headlines about redistribution of wealth by the state. On the other side of the aisle Fox News’ John Moody wrote an equally dishonest and insulting piece accusing the Pope of being a “robe-wearing politician” for “appearing to sanction what amounts to forced redistribution.”
Thankfully, archbishop of New York Cardinal Dolan helps set the record straight about Pope Francis and Catholic teaching in his Wall Street Journal opinion column published yesterday:
The church has long taught that the value of any economic system rests on the personal virtue of the individuals who take part in it, and on the morality of their day-to-day decisions. Business can be a noble vocation, so long as those engaged in it also serve the common good, acting with a sense of generosity in addition to self-interest.
Most important, as Cardinal Dolan points out:
It's also worth noting that what many people around the world experience as ‘capitalism’ isn't recognizable to Americans. For many in developing or newly industrialized countries, what passes as capitalism is an exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy. Americans must remember that the Holy Father is speaking to this world-wide audience.
Regardless of how uncomfortable it may be for public-sector proponents to admit, private enterprise and free markets are fully in keeping with Catholic teaching.
Last November, Pope Francis finished his second encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). He devotes significant attention to modern challenges in today’s world, including economic challenges. In that work, the Pope is unabashedly critical of the prevailing “throw away” culture in which people are “considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” It is in this context, where the dignity of the human person is ignored, that Pope Francis criticizes the belief that economic growth, which he points out is driven by free markets, will trickle down to the disaffected and disadvantaged absent the choice by individuals (ala Zacchaeus) to be generous and share what they have earned with those in need.
In other words, blind faith in a “free” economy so understood is no different than blind faith in big government when it comes to alleviating social injustice. Personal responsibility and individual action are at the core of any free and just society—principles reflected in functioning free-market economic systems grounded in the rule of law. The Catholic Church has long recognized this fact.
In the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”) Pope John Paul II repudiated consumerism and praised the “market economy” for being “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector...” In particular: “The free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to [worldly] needs.”
Centesimus Annus marked the 100th anniversary of the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) and built upon the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, who emphasized the rights and responsibilities of those who enter contracts, including the obligation to “fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon...”
Together, these teachings reaffirm that free markets further the dignity of the human person—in sharp contrast to socialist, communist, or collectivist regimes, including their purportedly warmer and fuzzier variant, the Nanny State.
Ultimately, genuine markets are rooted in morality, according to Pope Benedict XVI. “Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations,” the Holy Father said in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). When markets break down, it’s “not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility,” he explained.
And hard-working Americans are proving that prosperity is not antithetical to generosity. On the contrary, hard work and prosperity fuel it.
According to the latest edition of the World Giving Index, the United States ranks first globally based on the percentages of Americans who help a stranger (77 percent), donate money (62 percent), and regularly volunteer (45 percent) (p. 11). In fact, the United States ranks first in the five-year world giving ranking—impressive given the difficult economic conditions during this period (p. 12).
No one would seriously suggest that we should rest on our laurels or take for granted the many blessings God has bestowed on us.
But neither should anyone misrepresent American generosity or our free market economy that helps make such generosity possible—much less attribute such a misrepresentation to Pope Francis.