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A New Pope Registers an Old Complaint

April 3, 2017 | (8,395 words)

The March 2003 invasion of Iraq was a polarizing event for American Catholics. If you recall, we were given a choice between supporting the American gospel of “spread democracy,” and adhering to the Church’s long-standing admonition against preemptive military intervention.

Retaliation for the September 11, 2001 attacks on our native soil, along with the infamous “weapons of mass destruction” report, combined to form the air-tight rationale that conservative hawks and members of the neo-con war party had long been searching for. But in a surprise move, leading Catholic academics, journalists, and think-tank scholars also lent their support to the invasion. Elaborate pirouettes were performed by those conservative Catholics with the highest public profile, claiming the Church’s Just War Theory could be legitimately applied to the latest Middle East adventure. Presumably this hard-to-reconcile line of reasoning gained currency among the “official Catholic spokesperson” contingent because the administration taking us into battle was so very reassuring on other fronts, providing the standard Republican lip service about favoring “limited government,” promoting “personal responsibility,” and most important of all, being solidly “pro-life.”

As things got messy and the conflict dragged on, the consensus began to unravel and certain Catholic voices critical of the Republican establishment started to be heard. But soon enough there was a new occupant in the White House, and all formal opposition to the war coalesced around the dreaded Democrats and the new administration. This change at the top allowed rank-and-file conservative Catholics to quietly lower their profile on the subject, thus avoiding the awkward ramifications of having fallen prey to the pep rally atmosphere surrounding the original decision to invade.

Ten years later, the March 2013 elevation of Buenos Aires’ Cardinal Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy as Pope Francis also developed into quite the polarizing event for American Catholics. This time the struggle was not being waged on foreign soil, and there was no military involved. But we were still being forced to takes sides and choose.

And oh what a trying pontificate this is turning out to be for those who think of themselves as traditional practitioners. Now four years in, the list of perceived transgressions is already rather substantial, and continues to grow. Each of the recent Synods on the Family (October 2014, and October 2015) produced unnerving mid-term reports, and featured papal summations that seemed to encourage dissent in the name of collegiality. Central to this impression was the failure to silence outright the German contingent, led by a certain Walter Cardinal Kasper, pushing for access to Holy Communion on the part of divorced and remarried Catholics who have not bothered or quite gotten around to having their original marriage vows properly annulled.

The June 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si (On Care For Our Common Home), struck many as pantheistic in tone, with its acceptance of scientific evidence for global warming interpreted as a slap at conservatives who contend such warming is little more than a liberal hoax. The April 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetita (On Love In The Family), the formal report coming out of the two Family Synods, addresses the condition of our legion of fallen away Catholics in a careful and patient manner. But this approach does not sit well with those who “…prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” (AL, 308).

Sure enough, those whose preference is for “rigorous” over “patient” are now in the throes of anxiety/confusion, which has found expression in the dubia (Latin for “doubts”), a letter of five formal questions brought before the Pope by four international Cardinals in September 2016. The official title of the Cardinals’ submission is “Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots in Amoris Laetitia.” This dubia, we are told, is unique in that the questions it poses are worded in a way that require a simple “yes” or “no” answer. It was initially issued privately to the Pope, but after not receiving a response the Cardinals decided to go public. Their challenge has come to serve as something of a lightning rod for all those who have concluded that while Francis may indeed have the best of intentions, the poor man suffers from being terminally vague, equivocates when he should be decisive, and is hopelessly left-leaning, to boot.

The dubia seeks specific clarification on what it describes as the “grave disorientation and great confusion” caused by sections 300 through 305 of Amoris Laetita. One can hold the utmost respect for the four esteemed Cardinals, each of whom is possessed of an unassailable reputation for orthodoxy, and still find oneself at odds with their assessment. After reading the highlighted paragraphs at the center of this latest dogmatic controversy, one could reasonably conclude the lack of response to the Cardinals’ “five doubts” can be explained as follows: the answers being sought are already there in the apostolic exhortation to begin with.

But for now we wish to set aside this latest controversy, heated as it may be, to focus instead on Francis’s very first shot across the bow, as it were, the very first thing that drew an unfavorable response from those in this country who consider themselves nothing less than devout guardians of the faith. We refer of course to the first apostolic exhortation of this papacy, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), promulgated in November 2013.

If you’ll remember, it was a few paragraphs in a 47,560 word document that struck the match. The very first item on the “Francis agenda” that rubbed many of us the wrong way was having to choose between the American model of free enterprise, with “free” standing for “unimpeded by moral considerations,” and the Church’s well-known and carefully documented preference for fairness and justice in economic affairs, as dictated by a respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

Arriving at such a contentious public crossroads on this particular issue is a bit of a surprise, since what Francis has chosen to expound on the subject of economics is merely an echo of what every Pope has written and taught for more than a century, ever since Leo XIII held forth regarding the “rights and duties of capital and labor” on May 15, 1891. That particular encyclical, Rerum Novarum, has become the touchstone of Catholic social teaching on economics for the modern age, by virtue of it being referenced in all papal teaching on the subject ever since, including the teaching of our current, seemingly wayward pontiff. With perhaps the benefit of a certain edge to Francis’s prose, prompted no doubt by the worldwide financial meltdown that unfolded in 2008.

Allow us to quote in full the eight offending “economic” paragraphs from Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, promulgated November 26, 2013:


Evangelii Gaudium

No to an economy of exclusion

53. Just as the commandment “Thou shall not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shall not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? 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.

54. 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 welding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle that 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. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

No to the new idolatry of money

55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship to money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

56. 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. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keeps citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

No to a financial system which rules rather than serves

57. 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 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 that we hold, but theirs.”

58. A financial reform open to such considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to a generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.

No to the inequality that spawns violence

59. Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national, or global – is willing to leave part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future. We are far from the so-called “end of history.” Since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful development have not yet been adequately articulated and realized.

60. Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hope to those clamoring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless All this becomes even more exasperating for the marginalized in the light of widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries – in their governments, businesses and institutions – whatever the political ideology of their leaders.


These eight short paragraphs are an articulate overview of the shortcomings of our current economic preferences and prejudices, wouldn’t you say? And, all things considered, very measured and even-tempered in their tone. Qualities one would not immediately ascribe to Francis, based on his reputation for being a quirky, anti-establishment type who “feels” rather than “thinks.” This public image of being a “soft touch” has been formed largely by extracting isolated quotes from his elaborate formal writings that simply don’t do justice to his comprehensive message. And then there are those widely-reported, off-the-cuff responses given during impromptu interviews that we all find so amusing/worrisome, which are often conducted aboard airplanes after physically taxing public appearances with world leaders, during long flights between continents.

Which prompts the following observation: Not everyone in a position of authority is a natural-born politician, able to effortlessly shape every utterance into a perfectly-crafted sound bite, issuing forth at the drop of a hat. Many do better when given the opportunity to reflect and gather their thoughts. Most people write more carefully and with more nuance than they are able to speak. By and large, though, it’s not the formal writing of Pope Francis that is causing all the consternation. Because let’s face it, who actually takes the time to sit down and read a 47,560 word apostolic exhortation such as Evangelii Gaudium (EG) these days? Instead of consulting the original text for ourselves, which would be easy enough to do since it is readily available on the internet, we all take the short-cut instead. It’s faster to check out what our favorite syndicated columnist or talk-show host has to say on any given subject.

In this case, many turned to the reliable George Weigel for his thumbnail analysis, in the form of an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) entitled “Pope Francis the Revolutionary.” This capsule review appeared in the November 29, 2013 edition of the newspaper, a mere three days after EG was made public. Mr. Weigel, of course, has authored what is considered to be the definitive biography of John Paul II (Witness to Hope, 2005), and is generally considered to be among the leading conservative Catholic intellectuals – if not, in fact, the pre-eminent such thinker – in the United States today. He is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

As if on cue, Mr. Weigel’s remarks seem aimed at reassuring what could be called our nation’s WSJ Catholics that passages such as those quoted above from EG are by no means intended to denigrate our current version of free market capitalism. Not to worry, Mr. Weigel seems to be telling the troops, Pope Francis may indeed be a revolutionary, but the revolution he proposes “is not a matter of economic or political prescription…”

But of course what Francis is proposing is precisely a matter of economic and political prescription. One would have to be blinded by a pre-occupation with a different, non-Catholic sort of agenda to think otherwise. When it comes to papal teaching on economics, think tank scholars such as George Weigel have been providing just this sort of polite misdirection for quite some time. It started when National Review (NR) magazine, the standard-bearer of the modern conservative movement, dismissed the economic proscriptions contained in John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra as “an exercise in triviality.” Okay, so maybe NR wasn’t really being so mannerly with their remark. But that was before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). What has changed in our post-conciliar world is how the misdirection has gotten much more polite and politically correct, and therefore much more covert.

It’s hard to know what is worse: not having anyone read what you write, or having prominent spokespeople misrepresent what you write, in a way that misleads the very souls most in need of your message. This same fate has befallen the teaching on economics of even the universally revered John Paul II (now Saint John Paul II), who is now routinely presented to us by conservatives as offering straightforward support for free market nostrums, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Consider, for a moment, the way in which his May 1, 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA), specifically promulgated to honor the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, has been successfully hijacked by a cadre of approved conservative/orthodox spokespeople.

The think tanks and their adherents are forever quoting the one passage in CA they want us to pay attention to, the one passage that can be interpreted as supporting their battle cry of “economic freedom.” But even in that, they have to be selective. What we show below in bold italics is what our conservative-libertarian brethren always manage to leave out. What is merely italicized below is the one sentence they are forever reminding us of:


Centesimus Annus

42. Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant 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, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy,” or simply “free economy.” But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong judicial framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative…

Also conveniently ignored is the very next paragraph in CA, which we will again reproduce in bold italics, for emphasis.

43. The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the effort of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political, and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good. This teaching also recognizes the legitimacy of workers’ efforts to obtain full respect for their dignity and to gain broader areas of participation in the life of industrial enterprise so that, while cooperating with others and under the direction of others, they can in a certain sense “work for themselves” through the exercise of their intelligence and freedom…


As the above bold italics passages clearly demonstrate, John Paul II and Centesimus Annus is anything but an unequivocal endorsement of the generally accepted version of free markets and unregulated capitalism the conservative American contingent claims it is. The document and its author in fact go to great lengths to challenge conventional economic wisdom. But in order to get an expression of that challenge, one has to look beyond the standard American commentary. Consider the opinion of long-time Rome correspondent Sylvia Poggiolli, who offered the following view on her National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast, back on May 2, 1991:

“The latest encyclical focuses on the practical materialism of market economics, their unbridled search for profit, consumerism, and selfishness without solidarity. The Pope says it is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone. And he calls for state intervention to regulate market economies through a strong legal; system that also takes into consideration the ethical and religious needs of the human person…”

“The encyclical reflects the Pope’s concern that what he calls the viruses of Western capitalism now threaten to contaminate the lands of Eastern Europe, recently liberated from Marxist ideology.”

In contrast to the clarity of NPR’s Ms. Poggiolli, what John Paul II received in the way of commentary from this side of the Atlantic Ocean was a very thin gruel, indeed. We offer but two examples from a plethora of variations on the same theme. The first is provided by a then research associate at The American Enterprise Institute by the name of Ken Craycraft. His remarks appeared in The Washington Times, on May 3, 1991:

“If Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum was revolutionary in the history of Catholic social thought, John Paul II’s new encyclical, Centesimus Annus is cataclysmic. For the first time ever, a pope has explicitly endorsed the free market as the ‘victorious social system’ in the world, and the type of economy that ought to be proposed in all places, especially in the Third World. Champions of the morality of a market economy, and others who care about the plight of the poor, will rightly rejoice that the leader of the largest institutional religious body in the world has given his own moral sanction to the free economy.”

The second piece of selected commentary comes from Peter Steinfels, well-known Catholic journalist and long-time religion writer for The New York Times. The following remarks appeared in the NYT on May 2, 1991:

“Centesimus Annus includes the fullest, and in many ways the most positive treatment of the market economy in any papal document… (it) acknowledges the role of profit and the wisdom of harnessing rather than suppressing self-interest in the service of economic production.”

Many other familiar notables weighed in at the time, with their blinders firmly in place. As that old saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies? The fundamental problem with the conservative response is in trying to reduce a 114-page document like CA to one, long highlighted sentence. Then taking that one sentence and spinning it in a way that makes the entire document appear to be little more than a paid, political announcement. What a tragedy.

John Paul II’s wide-ranging 1991 encyclical should be read and digested in its entirety. It carries forward Leo XIII’s important teaching on the rights and duties of capital and labor, and the related teaching of subsequent Popes. It addresses the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, along with other revolutions in Africa, Asia, and South America, and the struggles these newly liberated peoples face in finding their way in the modern world. It confronts the profound differences in work and in the accumulation of wealth that have accrued since Leo XIII first addressed these issues. It does all this through a Catholic lens, demonstrating how Catholic anthropology’s ability to understand the human condition continues to be unparalleled.

Yet through a dogged repetition of a single passage from no. 42, CA is consistently presented to us as something it is not. Year after year we are dutifully instructed, from the pages of prestigious journals, and from the dais of equally prestigious seminars and international conferences, that with Centesimus Annus the Church has, at long last, finally caught up to the miracle of the free market, and the wonder of the profit motive. CA is nothing less than the Catholic Church belatedly standing at attention to acknowledge how we Americans had it right all along when it comes to economics. To accomplish this cock-eyed brand of advocacy, other revealing passages such as the following are completely ignored:

Centesimus Annus

19. … Another kind of response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture, and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.

32. … The modern business economy has positive aspects. Its basis is human freedom exercised in the economic field, just as it is exercised in many other fields. Economic activity is indeed but one sector in a great variety of human activities, and like every other sector, it includes the right to freedom, as well as the duty of making responsible use of freedom. But it is important to note that there are specific differences between the trends of modern society and those of the past, even the recent past. Whereas at one time the decisive factor of production was the land, and later capital – understood as a total complex of the instruments of production – today the decisive factor is increasingly man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as his ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them.

33. However, the risks and problems connected with this kind of process should be pointed out.


The fact is that many people, perhaps the majority today, do not have the means which would enable them to take their place in an effective and humanly dignified way within a productive system in which work is truly central. They have no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which would enable them to express their creativity and develop their potential. They have no way of entering the network of knowledge and intercommunication which would enable them to see their qualities appreciated and utilized. Thus, if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak, when it does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old subsistence economies. They are unable to compete against the goods which are produced in ways which are new and which properly respond to needs, needs which they had previously been accustomed to meeting through traditional forms of organization. Allured by the dazzle of an opulence which is beyond their reach, and at the same time driven by necessity, these people crowd the cities of the Third World where they are often without cultural roots, and where they are exposed to situations of violent uncertainty, without the possibility of becoming integrated. Their dignity is not acknowledged in any real way, and sometimes there are even attempts to eliminate them from history through coercive forms of demographic control which are contrary to human dignity.

Many other people, while not completely marginalized, live in situations in which the struggle for a bare minimum is uppermost. These are situations in which the rules of the earliest period of capitalism still flourish in conditions of “ruthlessness” in no way inferior to the darkest moments of the first phase of industrialization. In other cases the land is still the central element in the economic process, but those who cultivate it are excluded from ownership and are reduced to a state of quasi-servitude. In these cases, it is still possible today, as in the days of Rerum Novarum, to speak of human exploitation…

That conservative American Catholics can turn a blind eye to so much contradictory evidence is either an extreme example of the art of spin, or at the very least an example of extreme obtuseness on the part of the highly intelligent. We give you the following highly creative synthesis, again from our old friend George Weigel, as published in First Things magazine on June 11, 2011, with the title “The Enduring Importance Of Centesimus Annus,” in honor of its twentieth anniversary:

“John Paul also taught the Church new ways of thinking about the poor and about economic justice. In the emerging global economy, the Pope recognized, the source of wealth was less stuff in the ground than ideas and skills. Thus economic justice meant including a greater and greater number of people in the networks of productivity and exchange by which wealth was created and distributed: rather than problems-to-be-solved (as 20th century welfare states understood them), the poor should be thought of as people-with-potential. Inclusion, not redistribution, became the paradigm of economic justice; empowerment and getting people off the dole became the measure of how well a social welfare system worked; philanthropy and the independent social welfare system agencies made it possible, not just taxes and government, were the means by which the poor were to be empowered.”

Faced with such an egregious over-simplification and reduction in meaning, one is almost at a loss for words. Mr. Weigel and John Paul II are clearly using the same language to discuss the same concepts. But they are each drawing radically different conclusions, regarding such serious issues as the continued importance of equitable distribution, and inclusion into the new, modern networks of productivity that JP II sees as being denied to greater and greater numbers of people.

It’s as though Mr. Weigel is congratulating the Pope for finally recognizing that the source of wealth has become “less stuff in the ground than ideas and skills.” But from that simple observation he extrapolates an unvarnished support of the free market that simply cannot be found in the encyclical itself. His idea that “Inclusion, not distribution (is now) the paradigm of economic justice,” is his own special concoction, a sort of cliff notes version of what Centesimus Annus takes 114 pages to carefully shift through and lay out for consideration.

On the one hand, we have Weigel announcing that the road map to economic justice has been found. The free market has led the United States, and will continue to lead the rest of the world, to the promised land of prosperity. Whereas John Paul II is saying, in effect, “no, George, the problems of ‘economic injustice’ are still very much with us, in America and around the globe, and so far your vaunted ‘free market’ leaves a lot to be desired.”

Like many believers in “limited government,” Mr. Weigel sees “philanthropy and independent social welfare agencies” as the key to empowering the poor, rather than “taxes and government.” That there is a third option to solving this condition is something the conservatives never consider. What if the basic functioning of economic exchange were conducted in such a way as to allow everyone, even the poor, to enjoy the fruits of their labor? What if we didn’t need to rely on philanthropy and independent social welfare programs to mitigate economic injustice? Consider the positive implications were our economy to take a basic approach to employment that would empower workers to the point of being, to quote from papal teaching, “co-entrepreneurs” who are in essence “working for themselves.”

This seemingly tone-deaf analysis of his subject’s singular achievement in the realm of economics is hard to fathom. Mr. Weigel obviously earned the respect and confidence of John Paul II, to the point of becoming the author of the Pope’s definitive 2005 biography, Witness to Hope. That same trust and confidence is again on display with Weigel’s 2010 sequel, covering the rest of this Pope’s story, The End and the Beginning. So how does one explain Mr. Weigel’s tin ear when it comes to his favorite Pope and the economic question? And how are we to understand John Paul II’s apparent countenance of that tin ear, on the part of his favorite American journalist/theologian? There is probably a very interesting tale in all of this that may yet be told one day.

George Weigel’s close association with John Paul II is what makes the former’s ongoing pronouncements on the meaning of Centesimus Annus so compelling to the casual observer. He was at it again on March 13, 2017, as a member of a distinguished panel of scholars paying tribute to the recently-departed Michael Novak (d. February 17, 2017), hosted by The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

He took this opportunity to reprise some of his familiar highlights, again informing us how earlier economic thinking had been that wealth was just a “fixed pile of stuff,” so the “primary moral question became the equitable distribution of that stuff.” But this doesn’t describe wealth in the post-industrial world. Wealth is not just stuff. Wealth includes “ideas, entrepreneurial energy, risk-taking, prudence… A source of wealth in which more and more people could participate. And if the pie is growing, than the fundamental moral question shifts from distribution to inclusion.”

It is frequently stated that John Paul II and Centesimus Annus was “influenced” by Michael Novak’s work, starting with the latter’s seminal The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in 1982. We would offer a more sober analysis, and suggest that JPII “addressed” Novak’s work in a most thorough fashion, and showed it to be still lacking in its practical application.

If the luminaries who gathered at The Heritage Foundation in March 2017 are interested in an objective assessment of Centesimus Annus, they should refer back to what Sylvia Poggiolli of National Public Radio had to say on her broadcast of May 2, 1991, which we repeat here for emphasis:

“The latest encyclical focuses on the practical materialism of market economies, their unbridled search for profit, consumerism, and selfishness without solidarity. The Pope says it is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone. And he calls for state intervention to regulate market economies through a strong legal system that also takes into consideration the ethical and religious needs of the human person…”

“The encyclical reflects the Pope’s concern that what he calls the viruses of Western capitalism now threaten to contaminate the lands of Eastern Europe, recently liberated from Marxist ideology.”

Too bad those of us who reside here in the Sates never get to hear this sort of objective analysis. Instead we are led astray by the likes of the highly respected George Weigel, who has proudly identified himself as “interpreting this Pope for an American audience.” Given the current state of our understanding, it might be said we could do with a little less interpretation and a lot more fair and balanced reporting.

When one takes the time to actually consult the CA text, one can’t help but be troubled by the conservative/libertarian think tanks and their journalistic water boys and girls for foisting such a dumbed down, “profit is good” summary upon the great mass of unsuspecting conservative Catholics who think of themselves as traditional practitioners. Here is the last excerpt from Centesimus Annus we wish to cite in its entirety:


Centesimus Annus

41. …Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society. Alienation, however, has not been overcome as it exists in various forms of exploitation, when people use one another, and when they seek an ever more refined satisfaction of their individual and secondary needs, while ignoring the principle and authentic needs which ought to regulate the manner of satisfying the other ones too. A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying, who is no longer able to control his instincts and passions, or to subordinate them by obedience to truth, cannot be free: obedience to the truth about God and humankind is the first condition of freedom, making it possible for a person to order his needs and desires and to choose the means of satisfying them according to a correct scale of values, so that ownership of things may become an occasion of personal growth. This growth can be hindered as a result of manipulation by the means of mass communication, which impose fashions and trends of opinion through carefully orchestrated repetition, without it being possible to subject to critical scrutiny the premises on which these fashions and trends are based.


And so we ask you: Is it possible to conceive of a more direct and incisive criticism of the popular “consumer paradise” defense of our current version of free enterprise? Completely ignoring over a century of papal teaching, fortunate occupants of the ivory tower continue to disseminate this “consumer paradise” rationale for our edification. It is incumbent upon us to receive their wisdom and reconcile our thoughts accordingly. But just because fate has given these esteemed ladies and gentlemen a public platform does not necessarily mean they have anything of value to offer us.

Returning (at last) to our new Pope who insists on registering an old complaint, the language of Francis’s eight offending “economic” paragraphs in Evangelii Gaudium almost seems designed to make sure his message cannot possibly be misconstrued, as John Paul II’s message has so obviously been. And it is precisely because the respectful subterfuge applied by the usual suspects is not succeeding this time around, that many died-in-the-wool conservatives have begun to fume at the man from Argentina.

But let us remember his reception on the world stage did not start out this way. When the College of Cardinals selected as Pope the first Jesuit, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first non-European since Gregory III of Syria in 741, long-time conservative Catholic stalwart Patrick Buchanan was one who took up his syndicated pen to defend the choice. He was reacting to the secular media that was expressing concern at the time that this new Pope would be “against the West.” In a piece dated March 15, 2013, Mr. Buchanan offered his unequivocal support for the modest Cardinal Archbishop who kept a simple apartment, rode the bus, and lived among the Buenos Aires poor. “What the secular media reaction to Pope Francis reveals is that traditional Catholicism is today almost as deeply alien to our present-day West as it was in Roman times. Only the West chooses to ignore Catholicism, where Rome feared and persecuted it.”

A mere two years later, however, Mr. Buchanan was no longer expressing the same unalloyed affection. In what strikes many as an odd turn of events, by the summer of 2015 Buchanan had officially soured on a pontiff who refuses to apologize for continuing to assert that free market capitalism as practiced in the West and perfected in the United States is an “unacceptable ideological commitment.”

What happened to the guy who wrote all those bestsellers that discuss at length the undermining of our economy by Wall Street elites bent on maximizing investor returns at the expense of middle-class jobs being shipped overseas? One would have thought Pope Francis and Patrick Buchanan to be nothing less than inseparable brothers-in-arms, especially regarding a critique of an unrestrained free market. After listening to a couple of years’ worth of Francis’s relentless harping on the subject of inequitable distribution, however, the highly successful author (and long-time resident of one of exclusive Georgetown’s leafiest neighborhoods) has apparently heard enough, and has decided to switch sides.

Mr. Buchanan now agrees with The New York Times, when it solemnly reports on July 14, 2015 that Pope Francis “does not just criticize the excesses of capitalism. He compares it to ‘the dung of the devil.’ He does not simply argue that ‘greed for money’ is a bad thing. He calls it ‘a subtle dictatorship that condemns and enslaves.’”

In a rare example of editorial alignment between the respective leading print organs of the liberal-conservative dialectic, this rebuke just happens to match the house style over at The Wall Street Journal, ably represented by Mary Anastasia O’Grady. Ms. O’Grady wrote dismissively on May 18, 2015 of what she describes as the new Pope’s “Argentinian sense of cultural superiority over the money-grubbing capitalists to the north…” Whether this Pope feels culturally superior to anyone is open to debate. But Ms. O’Grady’s description of us as money-grubbing capitalists pretty much captures our essence, don’t you think?

What does it tell us when both ends of the dialectic, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, are in agreement with their criticism of Francis? Could it mean that what this Pope is attempting to proclaim is an authentic Catholic anthropology that exists above and apart from the contemporary liberal-conservative dialectic we are all unwittingly trapped inside of?

To be sure, seeing Mr. Buchanan reorient his priorities in this way brings no joy to the humble residents of Mudville. For many of us he has been a singular light in the political darkness for decades. Now rounding 80 years old, Pat has apparently lost his compass North on this topic. In the same New York Times column quoted above, dated July 14, 2015, he unfurls an uncharacteristically muddled – though conventionally libertarian – line of reasoning: “While capitalism does indeed generate inequalities, freedom, too, produces inequality. For all men and all women are unequal in abilities, energy, and opportunities. In a free society, some inevitably succeed, and others fail.”

Mr. Buchanan goes on to give us the following, equally head-scratching sentence: “The Pontiff says capitalist ‘idolatry of money’ creates the ‘dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.’ But it is egalitarianism that has proven to be the road to dictatorship, dictatorships run by egalitarians in the name of the ‘proletariat.’”

Pat’s turncoat ranting in The New York Times demonstrates once again how the principles of our country’s founding, “individual liberty,” “economic freedom,” and “limited government” are, sadly, the only intellectual reference points conservative Catholics in America seem willing to consider on the subject of appropriate economic behavior. They appear all but deaf, dumb, and blind to papal teaching on the subject, behaving as if there is no such teaching to begin with.

And even if they are given to acknowledge, in a moment of weakness, how recent Popes have expounded at length on this vital subject, their tendency is to make a passing reference to a select phrase, so as to obfuscate the underling meaning. The lack of consideration for the nuance of what our Popes, from Leo XIII to Francis, have written and taught leaves an unmistakable impression: the Catholic Church has no business issuing economically-related guidelines to the modern world. And certainly not to a powerhouse economy such as the one that thrives here in the States.

Meanwhile, back at the fort, our current Pope stubbornly refuses to let “economic justice” recede into the background, as it has always managed to recede in the recent past. He never misses an opportunity to reference established Church teaching regarding inequitable distribution of the world’s material goods whenever he can work it in, be it a homily or a formal address or an airplane interview. To use the vernacular, “the man just can’t seem to leave it alone.”

Here we have what might be described as an inconvenient truth. When a Third World homeboy like Francis comes along to remind us, front and center and early and often, of the Church’s preferential concern for the poor and the disadvantaged, it makes First World folks like us feel a little uncomfortable. We become a bit defensive, and start rattling off the institutional justifications for unfettered free market capitalism we all know by heart. Such as “it has produced more prosperity, and lifted more people out of poverty, than any other economic system on earth.” And how “the American way is to allow everyone to lift themselves up and improve their circumstances.” It goes without saying that in offering this rote defense, we are quite self-consciously trying to avoid biting the hand that feeds us.

The journalist Kevin Williamson actually started the now-burgeoning chorus of conservative criticism of Pope Francis when he took to National Review Online in December 2013 to rail against certain sections of Evangelii Gaudium just a few short weeks after it was promulgated. In so doing he was defending what might be broadly described as the American Experiment. It is the same approach Catholic scholars such as the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the late Michael Novak, the aforementioned George Weigel, the infamous Rev. Robert Sirico, along with the newest star in this redoubtable constellation, Arthur C. Brooks, have adopted since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). These highly respected commentators all define and approve of the Experiment in very familiar terms, the ones we just spelled out: individual liberty, economic freedom, and limited government.

The familiar roster of stamped-with-the-seal-of-approval Catholic spokespeople don’t seem to comprehend that when invoked by their fellow conservatives these words are an incantation of sorts, with a very specific connotation: “Let the movers and shakers among us make as much money as possible, apart from the dictates of justice and human dignity, lacking the slightest regard for the common good, and eventually some benefits will trickle down to the little people.”

Here we face our conundrum square in the face: The American Experiment has been a raging success in the view of the anointed, responsible for unleashing heretofore untold prosperity across the land, while simultaneously calling on our better angels. It serves as a sterling “Exhibit A” in modern man’s quest to transform selfishness and greed into an enlightened form of self-interest, where looking out for number one creates a rising tide that magically lifts all boats. In the American lexicon, prosperity is the unassailable sine qua non of human existence. Achieving it renders all of life’s previously daunting metaphysical questions moot.

When National Review journalist Kevin Williamson bolsters his unfavorable reaction to the handful of how-dare-he paragraphs in Evangelii Gaudium with a passing reference to “some ancient Catholic criticisms of market liberalism,” and “the longstanding Catholic skepticism of economic liberalism”, he is making an historical aside that pre-dates the American Experiment. His audience may not be entirely sure what he is talking about, since what today’s informed citizenry knows of history easily fits onto one side of an index card.

But the reasonably educated reader is nonetheless willing to accept Williamson’s dismissal of Pope Francis’s economic critique on face value, as just one more example of how Catholicism is behind the times and is always getting it wrong. Even many practicing Catholics who consider themselves devout have sadly come to accept the conventional wisdom – often promoted by fellow Catholics who just happen to be published in high-brow journals or employed by prestigious foundations – about their Church being hopelessly out of its depth when it comes to the economy or the market.

That the Catholic Church has consistently been on the wrong side of history, not just regarding economic matters but on everything, is a basic principle of the classical liberalism Mr. Williamson briefly cites in his National Review Online piece. Not to be confused with our present-day understanding of the term “liberal”, classical liberalism is an ideology dating back to the earliest days of what we think of as the modern era. Which roughly translates into the year 1500, give or take a few decades.

Forsaking any association with what is routinely denigrated as Catholicism’s checkered past, both before and after this historical line of demarcation, educated and successful people of my generation (b. 1954) have put as much distance as possible between our embarrassing religious upbringing and our present, outwardly prosperous way of life. And then along comes a Third World Pope who, like a bull in a china shop, can’t seem to avoid upsetting the applecart of our comfort, by reminding us of what we are supposed to be paying attention to, after all.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
April 3, 2017

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