Pope Francis preaches good news to the poor

By Alan Bean

Fox Business host, Stuart Varney, is mad at Pope Francis.

“I go to church to save my soul.  It’s got nothing to do with my vote. Pope Francis has linked the two. He has offered direct criticism of a specific political system. He has characterized negatively that system. I think he wants to influence my politics.”

He’s right, the Pope does want to influence his politics.  And, although the new Pope hasn’t criticized a particular brand of politics, he is demonizing the economic system near and dear to Varney’s heart.

The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) doesn’t attack capitalism as an economic system.  The target is the brand of trickle down economics that is often associated, in the United States, with the Chicago School of economics.  Capitalism always comes with some measure of governmental regulation; it’s a matter of how much and of what kind.

The argument driving Evangelii Gaudium begins with a bold statement:

We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan.  This involves not only recognizing and discerning spirits, but also—and this is decisive—choosing movements of the spirit of good and rejecting those of the spirit of evil.

Francis isn’t just disagreeing with trickle down, or supply side economics; he is calling it evil.  The Pope doesn’t merely state that the economic vision driving global markets is inefficient or ill-conceived; he says it hurts vulnerable people.  In the past, he argues, the poor and the vulnerable occupied the lowest rungs of the social ladder; but at least they had a place in society.  In recent years, he says, the goal has been the utter exclusion of the “surplus population”.

This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

This explains why a document primarily concerned about evangelism devotes so much attention to economic issues.  The concern is pastoral.  Pope Francis isn’t calling for a rejection of capitalism, but he rejects a binary logic that forces a choice between Marxism and unregulated capitalism.  In particular, he condemns a species of capitalism that values nothing but profit and the interests of the wealthy.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

Stuart Varney is right about one thing, you almost never hear religious leaders taking sides in economic arguments.  In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, there is an unspoken rule, particularly in America, that white religious leaders should stay out of culture war battles related to economics and the size and role of government.  The silence has been deafening.  Evangelii Gaudium breaks that silence.

But like I said, this Apostolic Exhortation isn’t primarily about economics; as the title suggests, the central thrust is evangelism, sharing the gospel.  In America, we associate “evangelism” with the Religious Right and automatically assume that preachers who are big on evangelism see free market capitalism as God’s good gift.  God gave us Jesus, and Jesus, correctly interpreted, gave us the free market.

This kind of puerile twaddle survives in America precisely because white religious authorities outside the Religious Right are bound by the code of silence.  Protestant and Roman Catholic, we don’t talk economics.

Unlike his scholarly predecessor, Pope Francis writes with a simple grace that is easy to read and highly quotable.  Combing through Evangelii Gaudium I couldn’t help thinking of black preachers like Freddie Haynes of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas who move from a critique of unfettered capitalism to an old-school evangelistic appeal without missing a beat.  Pope Frances loves God, is thrilled to be alive, and wants everyone, particularly the poorest of the poor, to share his joy.  Hence the title: “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Laissez Faire capitalism is denounced as evil because it interferes with gospel ministry.  So Francis says “no” to “the idolatry of money”, “no” to “a financial system that rules rather than serves” and “no” to “an inequality that spawns violence.”

Francis asserts, correctly, that neo-liberal economics spawns a moral cynicism that mocks the Christian God.  If the assumptions underlying free market fundamentalism are accurate, Francis says, then the market is god and we are worshiping Mammon.

Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”. [St. John Chrysostom]

Liberals shouldn’t conclude that the new Pope is taking their side in the culture war.  Francis decries an aloof liberalism that spouts leftist rhetoric without engaging the pain of flesh-and-blood people.  This isn’t about ideology, he insists.  The Church must transcend the ideology of the age if it is serious about sharing the gospel of the kingdom with the world.

Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritual worldliness camouflaged by religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk.

Toward the end of this document (which, in some text versions, runs over 200 pages) Pope Francis turns his attention to those, like Stuart Varney, who will be hurt and offended by his critique of trickle down economics:

If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.

Francis isn’t telling politicians what to do, nor is he engaging in an irresponsible populism; he speaks as a Christian prophet.  There may be a good reason why the Catholic Church has never elected a Jesuit to the papacy–these people take the intellectual life very seriously.  Evangelii Gaudium puts the power people of the world (especially the Americans) on notice.  The elegant simplicity of his prose notwithstanding, Francis is a superbly informed defender of the poor who cannot be dismissed lightly.  If folks like Stuart Varney think they can sweep Evangelii Gaudium aside with shelf-worn bromides demanding a false choice between Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, they are mistaken.

7 thoughts on “Pope Francis preaches good news to the poor

  1. This essay uses the phrase Trickle Down Economics, which suggests that owners of assets stole them from the poor. How could that be? The poor have little to steal. It fails to recognize that wealth is created through the voluntary process of providing desired goods or services.

    About 15 years ago in a Sunday School Class, a woman grew visibly angry expressing her opinion that Bill Gates had too much undeserved wealth. She owned and used a computer with a Windows operating system. Her anger seemed unable to see the irony or to recognize that, around that time, a news report said that, through profit sharing, Microsoft had over 8,000 employees with over $1million worth of Microsoft stock.

    Redistribution of wealth has been done in some countries with disastrous results. I submit that more benefits are provided for more people by creation of wealth than results from redistribution of wealth.

    The United States provides freedom, the rule of law, free education kindergarten through high school and financing programs for higher education for those motivated to pursue it.

    A report from the Congressional Research Service said that, in fiscal year 2111, the United States spent over $50,000 per year average for families below the poverty line. In a speech last year at St Louis University, George Will said that the United States is unusual in the world with more private charities by churches and other voluntary organizations, but government welfare programs are causing decline in private charity as more people see that function taken over by government.

    Abraham Lincoln said that men are inherently unequal. Jesus said the poor will always be with you. Experience tells us that some people will make bad life decisions. Should everyone be relieved of responsibility for their own lives and decisions?

  2. This is to correct two factual errors. The fiscal year 2111 was a typo. It should be 2011. The speech by Will in St Louis was at Washington University in St Louis, not St Louis University.

  3. First: quoting George Will doesn’t really do much to bolster your argument, friend. Second: as far as I can tell, you’re conflating success (the prevalence of Windows-based computers) with worthiness (Gates’ billions upon billions of dollars). Third and finally: you’re equating personal responsibility with survival, when, for many disenfranchised and marginalized groups—the ones that Francis speaks of (and to) in his work—there is tenuous connection.

    Your defensiveness reads like a cocoon of privilege and a core resentment that, to my eyes, feels dangerously close to anti-Christian (or simply anti-goodness, for our secular humanist friends).

  4. The group of presently-poor people who got there by losing their jobs and then being unable to find work did what they were supposed to: they worked as best they could and earned their pay. The rich playing with the markets, offshoring the jobs and interfering with the right of people to work are definitely stealing from the poor – not just in money but in the personal values that go with being part of the country they live in.

    The rich don’t spend their money – it goes into banks in secret places, to avoid paying the taxes that governments legitimately ask for to provide the services that you all use. The rich don’t want to pay for the roads they drive on; they demand special airports for their planes and use public air traffic control and weather services; they demand better hospitals and fund campaigns to deprive other people of health care.

    And you, Gene Elliott, support those actions of the rich. I hope you don’t claim to be a Christian, because you have obviously never read any of the Bible. Otherwise you would be ashamed . The Bible stresses in hundreds of verses that people are to look after other people, not to steal and mistreat those others. Why do you demand that the poor be kept poorer?

    And why do you think that the 1% of t he population who control over 50% of the total wealth are good citizens. Your name wouldn’t happen to be Koch, would it, slumming down here to laugh in the face of the people you have impoverished?

  5. It fails to recognize that wealth is created through the voluntary process of providing desired goods or services.

    Even if we accept that that’s how it’s created (which is more than often not the case, actually), that’s certainly not how it’s distributed. If you didn’t hate freedom so much, you’d know this already.

  6. Bill Gates had too much undeserved wealth.

    He does. Each individual is entitled, by the mere fact of hir existence, to an equal share of social wealth–no more and no less. Possession ine xcess of this mean, then, is an act of theft from those who have less. Again, if you weren’t such an authoritarian freedom-hating collectivist, you’d understand this already.

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