For TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” 2013 could easily be dubbed the “Year of the Unprecedented.” Not only is Pope Francis the first to succeed a retired pontiff in centuries, he has also accomplished that which had remained elusive for his most recent predecessors: a considerable popularity with the American political left. His comments on abortion, homosexuality, and contraception, in particular, have social liberals excited at the prospect of the long-awaited Church “reforms” that his pontificate (or, at least, his interviews) seems to herald. As a personal aside, I have never before seen such enthusiasm for the pope from my more liberal (and often irreligious) Stanford friends, either on Facebook or in private conversation.
Meanwhile, conservatives are confused why the Holy Father has apparently not been more vocal on the social issues that have dominated Catholic intellectual discourse in recent decades. The November release of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), has only furthered this curious political re-alignment of support for the pope, with countless conservative articles bashing the Exhortation’s condemnation of “unbridled capitalism.” The pope’s conservative critics have included the oft-bombastic Rush Limbaugh, who dismissed the pope’s words as “pure Marxism.”
To many liberals, Francis is a breath of fresh air. To many conservatives, his economic proposals are ignorant at best, while his discussion of sexual morality (or lack thereof) is worrisome.
At least such is the dominant narrative that news outlets, the blogosphere, and, consequently, popular culture have subscribed to. Perhaps it is only natural to couch Pope Francis’s thoughts within the context of contemporary American politics. After all, we have grown accustomed to partisanship; witness last fall’s government shutdown, a byproduct of a political “aisle” which is really more of a chasm.
Yet to pigeon-hole the new pontiff’s views into “conservative” or “liberal” categories detracts from the beauty of his overall message—a message that transcends political, economic, and even religious lines.
Full disclosure: I am a Catholic conservative, with strong political and religious beliefs. Yet the economic portions of Evangelii Gaudium do not suggest that my faith and my pope are at odds with my politics. On the contrary, the most controversial components of Evangelii Gaudium beautifully illustrates the way in which economics can and should not only be considered in the realm of politics, but in the realm of morality.
What He Actually Said
Of the various ideas put forth in the 217-page Evangelii Gaudium, the following excerpt has arguably been responsible for much of the media brouhaha:
“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away 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…The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’
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…To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.”
At first glance, Pope Francis seems to condemn capitalism altogether, dismissing “trickle-down theories” as simply empirically unverifiable opinions. Further examination, though, reveals that he does not take for granted that capitalism and the free-market can improve aggregate well-being, a point which he alludes to throughout the Exhortation. Rather, he doubts whether capitalism necessarily results in a more just society. In other words, laissez-faire economics cannot be accompanied by a laissez-faire regard for the poor and vulnerable.
And herein lies the error to which many critics a-la-Rush Limbaugh succumb: the notion that when Pope Francis speaks of the need to “care for the poor,” he necessarily implies government coercion to do so. In other words, critics believe that when he calls on the rich to “share their wealth with the poor,” he means it as a matter of public policy.
The principles expressed in Evangelii Gaudium are more profound. The Exhortation’s purpose is interior, to engender in its readers a concern for the less fortunate, a healthy understanding that wealth is only a means, not an end. In this sense, a society’s efforts to help the poor should not originate from the halls of its government, but from the hearts of its people.
I shall cede the last words to Francis, who speaks of the beauty and nobility of business and politics vis-à-vis their essential roles for the bettering of the common good:
“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all…
Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”