Portsmouth Abbey Institute Summer Conference Talk — In Defense of Pope Francis’ Economics

Last weekend I spoke at a conference in Portsmouth, Rhode Island devoted to understanding the Francis papacy. I spoke for 20 minutes and then answered questions, which I think there is video of somewhere. The purpose of my talk was to offer an explanation and defense of Pope Francis’ economics. Here are my remarks in full.

* * *

Portsmouth Abbey Talk: Pope Francis’ Economics

 Hello, and thank you so much for joining us tonight to consider Pope Francis’ contributions to our understanding of economics. I’m thrilled to be talking with you all tonight, and I’m especially grateful to Chris Fisher and the Portsmouth Abbey Institute for putting this important conference together. Chris has been especially indispensible – I suspect at least half of the huge number of emails he must have answered in the past several weeks came from me – so, I wanted to recognize all he has done and to thank him for putting in such an amazing effort.

I hope you have all enjoyed your time here – I expect the contributions made here will help advance dialogue about Pope Francis’ papacy both inside and outside the Church. I know I’m honored to share a speaking schedule this weekend with colleagues and mentors I respect tremendously, and I trust at the end of this conference we will all go forward with a developed and nuanced set of insights into Pope Francis’ tenure as Pope so far.

With this talk, I’m aiming to establish two ideas: first, that there is an extraordinary misunderstanding of Pope Francis’ economics that is largely the result of peculiar American historical tendencies in politics; second, that Pope Francis’ economics represent the most faithful, reasoned approach to contemporary global problems. I will begin with the first effort: that is, untangling the confusion surrounding Pope Francis’ economics.

I. Confusion in Terms

There is a good amount of legitimate controversy surrounding Pope Francis, most of it relating to tone and delivery, which are not small matters. But there is also equally, in my view, a huge amount of controversy surrounding Pope Francis that is totally illegitimate. What controversy am I referring to? Let me share a few headlines with you from the past couple of years.

“The Economist Accuses Pope Francis of Following Lenin” – from Religion News Service.

“Marxists Celebrate Pope Francis” – from Breitbart.

“Is the Pope a Communist?” – from the BBC.

“Pope Francis: a Socialist by Any Other Name” – from Beliefnet.

“Pope Francis: a Liberal Machiavelli?” – from The American Conservative.

Well, there you have it: the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is not only a socialist but a communist, not only a communist but a Leninist, not only a Leninist but a liberal one, and perhaps Machiavellian to boot. This is an extremely perplexing set of labels to settle on the shoulders of a man who John L. Allen estimated would call himself a moderate Peronist if asked, and an even more befuddling litany of charges for someone who has shown no signs of any such affiliations. And yet, I doubt this odd media habit will cease any time soon.

It is the result of a confusion in terms that has situated itself in the marrow of American partisan politics. The American political imagination is deeply confined by our political parties: we imagine one party to be liberal, and the other conservative. Any idea that integrates economic principles typical of the Democratic party is automatically described as liberal, and any idea – heaven forbid! – that integrates economic principles more radical than those typical of the Democratic party are automatically described as some form of Marxism, communism, or socialism. Because we have only two parties, and thus no socialist or communist partisan presence (as is common in some parliamentary democracies) Americans tend to have a very weak understanding of what socialism actually is. The term is therefore applied pretty loosely, to any political tendency to the left of Democrats.

The reality is that both the Republican and Democratic parties are fundamentally liberal: they (let me emphasize: theoretically) seek to maximize citizens’ liberties, and disagree mainly on how best to go about that. Both highly esteem self-determination, individual rights, and personal freedoms. These inclinations play out in a variety of spheres. Without getting into the particulars of liberalism, and with the intent to restrict my comments to economics, it will suffice to say that economic liberalism is a modern innovation with a modern view of the human person, while the Catholic Church is an institution that maintains much continuity with pre-modern thought, and has a very different view of the human person and his place in creation. Where liberal economic thought centers individual freedom, the Catholic approach to economics embraces ‘Personalism’ – a philosophy that considers the human person the primary unit of moral concern, and aims to promote human flourishing. (Pope Saint John Paul II was, incidentally, one of the great architects of Personalism; Pope Francis’ continuation of his work therefore represents anything but a radical rupture with the Church’s recent past.)

Freedom and liberty are a part of our consideration of human flourishing. But they fit into a matrix of values that support people as we journey toward flourishing, which is living oriented to God. It is this central interest – to live lives oriented toward God – that preoccupies Christian ethics, and, accordingly, Christian economics. This sets our approach apart from the liberal approach, and explains – as I hope to demonstrate – the points of departure between Pope Francis and his American detractors.

II. Christian Economic Principles

 The word Economy comes to us from the Greek oikonomia, meaning (roughly) household management. The apostle Paul uses the term with some frequency in his letters to refer to his carrying out of the tasks God has assigned him; the Orthodox Church uses the term in a similar way, to refer to the application of Church canons to the daily life of the Church. These uses, though different than our contemporary use of the word, are illuminating for two reasons: firstly, because they remind us that economics is a matter of household management, that is, a matter of rightly ordering the use of our common home; secondly, because they help situate the place of economics in the Church’s social teaching. Robert K. Vischer explains:

“Catholic social teaching is, by nature, ill-suited to abstract formulation. It can be understood only through exploration in the context of pressing social problems, as underscored by the Church’s consistent and deliberate recitation of relevant real-world circumstances in tandem with invocations of the theoretical principles on which the social teaching is based.”

With regard to economics, then, Catholic social teaching aims to provide moral guidance on the question of how we should manage our resources in our present circumstances. “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion,” Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “yet we cannot help but be concrete…lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one.” To understand the contributions Pope Francis has made along these lines, we must consider the broad principles underlying his thought in the context of the real-world problems facing us today.

First, the broad principles. Pope Francis, in keeping with the whole of tradition, views creation as intended for humanity. “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us,” he writes in Laudato Si; humankind was made for stewardship of the earth, a task that belongs to all people in common. Accordingly, all of creation is given to humankind in common. From sin comes the Fall, and from the Fall, scarcity and, more crucially, the human inability to reliably treat common goods as such. Augustine supposed the introduction of governance, though ultimately a result of sin, was a gift from God meant to remedy this situation: where men could no longer rightly regulate their own impulses, fair governance had a better shot at preventing constant antagonism between neighbors. In Augustine’s view, the regulation of private property was one such just function of government: “God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, ‘this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.’ By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors. Why? Because God has distributed to mankind these very human rights through the emperors and kings of this world.”

Augustine’s insight here helps us distinguish between what the right intent of the institution of private property is, and how the institution itself works – the why and the how, if you will. The intent of private property is to maintain the kind of order that leads to flourishing: that is, to allow all persons the security and stability we need to flourish. Meanwhile, the institution itself functions through various pieces of governance, regulation, and social controls. Taken together, the why of private property tells us the moral parameters within which the how must operate. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes:

“The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone .These are strong words.”

These are very strong words, though perhaps less frightening than certain corners of the political commentariat would have you think: what Pope Francis is emphasizing here is that the institutions governing property relations must orient their work around the principle that all persons are inherently valuable and worthy of flourishing. It is on this count that Pope Francis has called for governments around the world to repair their broken systems of distribution.

III. This Economy Kills

In applying these principles to our current economic situation, Pope Francis has found that poor people around the world are presently victims of “an economy of exclusion,” an economy that kills. “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium, going on to say that “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.”

Pope Francis views the opportunity and prosperity available only to a rarified few as an example of our mismanagement of resources, a failure of our oikonomia. In Evangelii Gaudium he makes as much clear, writing that the sufferings of the poor are a scandal in a time of such abundance. Pope Francis’ vision for redress is not simply to attain “nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people,” he writes, “but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”.This means education, access to health care, and above all participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”

This is what Pope Francis means when he calls for “a just distribution of goods.” As we have seen, the Christian ethics of private property are entirely consonant with these projects, and our current circumstances require us to seek them. Since the 1970s, wages for the lowest-income workers have stagnated, and jobs have disappeared. The top 1% of American earners have received 95% of total market income growth in the last several years. Moreover, the top 1% of American families now hold 40% of total wealth, while bottom 50% hold just 1%. Along with a variety of social ills – mistrust, crime, poor health, and declining marriage rates among the poor – inequality on this register is also associated with corruption in government and pervasive unrest. It is a cancer, in other words, that results from our failure to rightly manage God’s gifts to us, and it echoes through every dimension of our lives.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis identifies one source of our ongoing dilemma: “Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. [They show] no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations…Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.”

On the other hand, intelligent policy can go a long way towards improving the lives of our poorest, many of them children. Consider the disparities between child poverty in high-inequality countries, like the United States, and low-inequality countries, like the Scandinavian states: The US 21% child poverty rate under the OECD is 5.3x higher than world leader in child poverty reduction, Denmark, with 3.8% child poverty. The level of child deprivation in the US is found not just in relative measures such as poverty rates, but also in absolute measures about how much disposable income they have access to. According to the Luxembourg Income Study, the poorest US children (children at the 5th percentile) have absolute disposable income levels that are near the bottom of rich developed countries. In the mid-2000s (the latest comparable data available), there were 14 countries whose poorest children had more income than our poorest children. Topping the list, Norway and Denmark’s poorest children had 2x and 1.8x the amount of disposable income as US children. These realities are the result of policies aimed specifically at establishing an equitable distribution of resources, for the common good.

It is notable that these countries are not full blown state socialist countries; there is private capital ownership aplenty in Scandinavia. Nor are the policies that ensure their just distribution of goods culturally flattening: Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that he values the diverse cultures of the world, and policies aimed at reducing inequality and achieving an economy of inclusion need not have any impact on the aspects of our American culture that make us unique and vibrant.

We have the resources, therefore, and we know what our obligations are. This is not merely a matter of state governance; it involves the social order as well. Nor should these charges be confused with the wholly separate matter of Christian charity, which concerns caritas, not oikonomia, matters of resource management. (Indeed, Pope Francis emphasized in a sermon last Tuesday that charity is an entirely different moral obligation than humane resource management, where he praised both institutions while distinguishing between them.) What Pope Francis has brought forth is our moral imperative to properly order our loves: it is good to value freedom, self-determination, liberty, and all the rest – but these values must fit into a matrix that ultimately exalts the person, and seeks universal human flourishing. Therefore they cannot be idolized to the exclusion or harm of human persons, which is the situation we now find ourselves in. In Laudato, Pope Francis writes:

“This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus.”

Pope Francis is correct in his analysis and in his moral theology. His message is a gift to our hearts, and I pray it will be a light for our path. Thank you.