The Scriptures tell us that Jesus came to bring good news to the poor.
We are grateful that so many people support our work with the poor. But as Dorothy Day said, there should not be so many poor in this world that God loves.
In a milieu in which the possession of material goods and wealth status have become the landmark for respect, the poor are designated as failures or losers. Money is power and is a sign of God’s blessing instead of the Sign of the Cross!
Trying to follow the Gospel turns the world’s values upside down and can provoke strong reactions. People can become quite angry when it is pointed out that there are better alternatives than economic libertarianism, also known as the trickle-down theory.
Recently a paper from Pope Francis on Catholic Social Teaching provoked a strong reaction on the Web.1
The Pope’s conference paper invites us to find new creative ways to apply fraternity and solidarity as governing principles in the economic order—to find alternatives to what he called an “invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism.”
Some who claim a right to pursue an economics which sends wealth to the top 1% and leaves so many to scratch out a living as best they can have come out swinging against the teaching of the Holy Father, claiming that he does not understand “economics.” With great cleverness they attempt to eliminate any opposition by calling their critics socialists (or ignorant).
Pope Francis challenges the notion that the only “suffocating” alternatives are a neoliberal/neoconservative individualist vision of the world or the neo state-centric one. He offers a way beyond these two theses which, as he said, have proved to be “incapable of overcoming the inequality, inequity, and exclusion that now overwhelm our societies.”
One can perhaps understand the fury among the flurry of posts and articles criticizing the Holy Father’s position after his critique of an economics which is not good news for the poor.
Just when powerful interests and politicians have been making progress in their quest to further establish their wealth and their influence in business departments in universities (including Catholic higher education) to teach that their way is the only way, along comes Pope Francis with his critique.
A poisoned spring
Pope Francis is not the first Pope to see the inadequacies and injustices of economic libertarianism. Pope Pius XI wrote in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno: “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.”
What is Pope Francis saying?
The Holy Father’s invitation presents a positive alternative to an economy in which so many are marginalized and excluded “from equitable participation in nationwide and planetary distribution of both market and non-market assets such as dignity, freedom, knowledge, belonging, integration and peace.” Not only that, he tells us that it is necessary to broaden the traditional notion of justice, “which cannot be restricted to judgment at the time of distribution of wealth, but must go further, to the moment of its production. It is not enough, that is, to claim the ‘just goods to the worker’ as recommended by the Rerum novarum (1891). It is also necessary to ask whether or not the production process takes place with respect for the dignity of human labor; whether or not it accepts basic human rights; whether or not it is compatible with moral norms. Gaudium et spes,2 tells us: ‘The entire process of productive work, therefore, must be adapted to the needs of the person and to his way of life.’”
Pope Francis challenges efficiency as the criteria for excellence in production at the expense of the human person:
Labour is not merely a factor in production that, as such, has to adapt to the needs of the production process to increase its efficiency. On the contrary, it is the production process that must be organized in such a way as to enable the human growth of people and harmony between time for family and working life.
Not just solidarity, but fraternity
The appeal, therefore, is to remedy the mistake of contemporary culture, which has led to the belief that a democratic society can progress by keeping separate the code of efficiency–which would be enough to regulate relationships between humans within the sphere of the economy–and the code of solidarity, which would regulate inter-subject relationships within the social sphere. It is this dichotomy that has impoverished our societies.
The key word that expresses better than any other the need to overcome this dichotomy is ‘fraternity…’ Indeed, while solidarity is the principle of social planning that allows the unequal to become equal, fraternity is what allows the equal to be different people.
Fraternity allows people who are equal in their essence, dignity, freedom, and their fundamental rights to participate differently in the common good according to their abilities, their life plan, their vocation, their work, or their charism of service.
Where is your god?
It is hard to believe one’s ears when politicians and some influential Catholics speak of how great the discredited theory of economic libertarianism is and how helpful it will be to the poor when all help is taken away from them.
The way marketeers speak of how everything should be determined by the “invisible” hand of the market makes it sound like the market is their god. The problem is that the invisible hand of the market often has a knife in it for the poor, the unemployed, and now for the middle class.
What is economic libertarianism?
Economic libertarians speak much of freedom, but support policies which undermine the freedom of the less wealthy and less powerful. In practice, their understanding of freedom requires government support for them as individuals and the corporations they run.
An example of the “unfreedom” pushed through Congress by lobbyists for corporations was reported by USA Today. The paper reported that “The fact that Medicare is forbidden in the law that created Medicare Part D to negotiate lower prices is no accident. The drug lobby worked hard to ensure Medicare wouldn’t be allowed to cut into the profits which would flow to big Pharma thanks to millions of new customers delivered to them by Part D.”
Economic libertarian Bill of Rights
The economic libertarian bill of rights might look something like this:
We need some regulation
We need laws to protect those who are not in the top 1% economically and to protect the earth.
One cannot count the many who are discouraged by their inability to find meaningful work that pays a living wage. Those who labor hope that they will be helped when they have a devastating work accident. They need help when they are victims of crime. We have seen in our years since 1980 in our work with poor families (and research bears us out), that when men are out of work or have work that pays so little that the family can hardly live, the frustration can lead to domestic abuse. And immigrants and minorities are scapegoated to appease the poor and fast-diminishing middle-class in our society who are frustrated and insecure.
As Pope Francis said, “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.”
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.
Cloaking libertarianism in Catholic garments
Among the critics of Pope Francis are those who have attempted in their writings and speeches to give the impression that Catholic Social Teaching can embrace libertarian capitalism. They camouflage it as something that will help the common good and the poor. Fr. Robert Sirico, George Weigel and the late Michael Novak have attempted to reinterpret CST in order to defend laissez-faire economics. If we were discussing theology this would be called casuistry.
The above-mentioned have been joined in this by Tim Busch of the Napa Institute. Raymond Arroyo of EWTN regularly features these men and their supporters on his program to tout their economics in Catholic garb.
Wealth and power are temptations and Catholics, like others, are susceptible. Several reporters, including Michael Sean Winters, have reported on how the wonders of capitalism are presented at the “retreats” of the Acton and Napa Institutes in luxurious settings for seminarians, priests, and bishops.
While they may be devout in traditional piety, Catholic advocates of what might be called crony capitalism have endorsed extreme economic policies which have often been formulated by agnostics and atheists who have a very different understanding of the human person.
They are closely aligned with the ideas of Ayn Rand, and now with the billionaire Koch brothers, owners of the fossil-fuel Koch Industries, who support abortion rights and oppose legislation that can make economic life more bearable for the masses of people. This appears to be an attempt to make the approach of robber barons a new normal.
It was not too surprising to read reports that the Koch brothers were a power behind the president’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. The New York Times and The New Yorker reported that it is “a story of big political money.”
Commenting on the enormous donations Tim Busch and the Koch brothers made to the business school at the Catholic University of America, John Gehring wrote on American Prospect: “The influence of the Kochs merits special scrutiny at Catholic University, founded by the U.S. bishops to be the national university of the Catholic Church in America. As one of the wealthiest men in the world, Charles Koch is promoting an agenda that is on a collision course with Pope Francis’s teachings about Catholic stewardship.”
Gehring referred to Tim Busch’s comments: “In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Busch explained why the university accepted the Koch funding and gushed about the ‘compatibility of capitalism and Catholicism.’ His own economic views—like those of the Kochs— are often in tension with Catholic tradition. One bedrock principle of Catholic social teaching is that workers should receive a living wage. It’s a position that the Catholic Church has officially supported since at least 1891, when Pope Leo XIII affirmed that right and also the right of workers to organize. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explicitly supports raising the federal minimum wage. Busch, in contrast, has called the minimum wage ‘an anti-market regulation that leads to unemployment’ and claims it does ‘great harm’ to workers.”
Gehring quotes Stephen Schneck, the director of Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies: “Radical market ideologies really are heretical. To yoke human freedom to the same market competition that has given rise to consumerism, materialism, value relativism, and the commodification of labor can’t be squared with the Catholic ideal of human dignity.”3
Business professors at Catholic U. where all this capitalist money is flowing have chimed in to criticize the Pope.
Small wonder that economic libertarians have been irate ever since Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii gaudium, “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.”
Pope Francis wrote in his conference paper that there is a mistaken idea of freedom on the part of those who chafe at any regulation: “The radicalization of individualism in libertarian and therefore anti-social terms leads to the conclusion that everyone has the “right” to expand as far as his power allows, even at the expense of the exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority. Bonds would have to be cut inasmuch as they would limit freedom. By mistakenly matching the concept of “bond” to that of “constraint”, one ends up confusing what may condition freedom – the constraints—with the essence of created freedom, that is, bonds or relations, family and interpersonal, with the excluded and marginalized, with the common good, and finally with God.”
Martyrs to economic libertarianism
Some libertarians do not want the U.S. entangled in foreign wars. Others support regimes that violate human rights in order to make profits or even encourage our government to overthrow governments of other nations. Historically, this has been done in the name of stopping Communism. In the 1950s, for example, in support of the United Fruit Company, the U.S., through the CIA, participated in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government.
My husband Mark and I experienced first-hand during our time in El Salvador how the poorest who begin to ask for a better wage (and those who defend and accompany them) are often crushed and even martyred in the name of stopping communism or socialism. In El Salvador and in other countries the death squads involved in this operation were supported by the U.S.
New Pastoral Letter from San Salvador
The reality of those terrible times in El Salvador is described in Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas’ new Pastoral Letter, in which he has again brought forth his prophetic voice. In the Letter, entitled You Also Will Testify, Because You Have Been with Me from the Beginning, the Archbishop of San Salvador memorializes the martyred sixteen priests, two bishops, four religious women, and countless catechists who accompanied the poor in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s. He also eloquently reveals the roots of the martyrdoms in the military and paramilitary protection of the few rich in that economy from the cry of the poor.
Why are the children coming alone?
Working with immigrants and refugees since 1980, Mark and I saw the effects of “free-trade” agreements on countries to the south and the uprooting of so many that they have caused, beginning with NAFTA. We received these economic refugees at Casa Juan Diego. The Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) followed.
The news coverage when the large numbers of children began to come alone from Central America has waned, as the children are routinely detained and deported.
Michelle Chen has pointed out that these children are victims of the economics of “free trade” applied to their countries, where labor leaders are often jailed or murdered: “When tens of thousands of Central American migrant children streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border last year, some in this country received them as refugees fleeing violence and poverty; others demonized the ‘invasion’ from the south with bigoted panic. What many overlooked was that these ‘unaccompanied minors’ weren’t just coming in search of new homes—they were actually sent; their migration had been sponsored by some of the biggest corporations in the hemisphere.”
The recent presidential campaign made it sound like other countries have been taking advantage of us by receiving outsourced jobs.
Chen reports: “While free-trade deals are routinely criticized in the U.S. for promoting the outsourcing of ‘American jobs,’ according to the research of a union-led delegation to Honduras, the trade system is systematically undermining democracy in the Latin American nations …
Labor activists in Central America, quoted in a report from the AFL-CIO, say that as the United States exports misery to the south through economic exploitation of the workers, the “free trade” agreement (CAFTA-DR) has plunged a generation of youth into free fall.
While many factors have contributed to this instability, according to the report, exploitative trade has helped embolden the government’s impunity, in turn driving the brutality and displacement that sends countless families to seek refuge in the north.
New roads from the Gospel
Pope Francis said in his paper, “The endemic increase in social inequalities, migration, identity conflicts, new slavery, environmental issues, and bio-political and bio-legal problems are just some of the issues that trouble us today. Faced with such challenges, the mere upgrading of old categories of thought or the use of sophisticated collective decision-making techniques is not enough; we need to attempt new roads inspired by Christ’s message.”
As he said in Evangelii gaudium, “From the beginning of my pontificate, I wanted to point out that ‘our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the Incarnation for each of us.’”
Sometimes people who revere Mary as our Blessed Mother may not remember the words in the Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Caryl Houselander wrote about how Mary “rejoiced in His care for the little and the weak.… She was pregnant with the Christ life of the whole world. No one of us would ever be a stranger to her in a strange land: to her every one of us would be her only child.”
Originally published in Houston Catholic Worker.
- “Message from the Holy Father to the participants in the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences,” Towards a Participatory Society: New Roads to Social and Cultural Integration: 28 April—2 May 2017.
- No. 67.
- “Koch Brothers’ Latest Target: Pope Francis,” The American Prospect. October 14, 2016.