By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
How should Catholics who are “on the right” on economic matters respond to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium? The left likes what the Pope had to say, describing the exhortation as a condemnation of free-market capitalism. A columnist on Yahoo News argued that it goes a long way toward corroborating Fr. Thomas Reese’s proposition, made some months ago, that the Pope is “to the left of Nancy Pelosi.” (An apostolic exhortation does not carry the same weight as an encyclical, but it represents the Pope’s thinking, an indication of where he intends to move the Church. It is not something that can be shrugged off by Catholics loyal to the Church.)
By Catholics “on the right” I do not mean proponents of the social Darwinist theories of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, who argue that it will be better for the human race if we let the poor die out, rather than divert resources to them that will be better used by the productive members of society. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone make that case, certainly not a thinking, practicing Catholic. From the time of the 19th-century social encyclicals to the present, the Church has condemned this line of thinking as “economic individualism.”
The Catholics on the right I am talking about are those who agree with Milton Friedman and George Gilder about the power of free markets to lift the poor out of poverty, and with Charles Murray’s argument in his book Losing Ground that it can be demonstrated that big government poverty programs tend to make things worse for the poor.
Is the Pope requiring these Catholics to change their views and support the cradle-to-grave welfare state found in many of the industrialized countries of the world? I say no. Francis makes clear in Evangelii Gaudium, as have all the Popes who have preceded him when they wrote on economic issues, that he is not offering an economic model for Catholics to follow. In Francis’ words, “It is not the task of this Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality.” The Pope is assuring us that he is writing on matters of faith and morals in this exhortation, not proposing the nuts and bolts of economic policy.
Let us consider what Francis condemns in Evangelii Gaudium: the “idolatry of money,” financial systems that “rule rather than serve,” a “culture of prosperity,” a lack of “compassion at the outcry of the poor,” a materialistic view of life constantly in search of “something new to purchase.” These moral failures can be found among some free-market capitalists, to be sure. But they are not the only examples. The Pope knows that these character flaws can also be found in European socialist leaders with a fondness for $3,000 suits and Mediterranean vacation homes, in Arab monarchs who spend more on their cars and palaces than any factory owner on the planet, all the while seeking ways to stop the free market from driving down the price of their oil, in Soviet despots who ran off to their plush dachas on the Black Sea whenever they got a chance.
The “idolatry of money”? Is that more evident in the entrepreneurs working 16 hours a day to realize a profit from the fracking of natural gas, or in Democratic politicians like the Clintons demanding $700,000 for a speech delivered to businessmen seeking access to the influence and connections to government contracts that the Clintons can secure for them? I would wager that Hillary spends more on her hairstylists and makeup artists than most women who have made their money as entrepreneurs.
The Clintons have figured out the way to use their connections to big government to make them millionaires. They make nothing; they build nothing. They are not capitalists. Should they be our model? Michelle and Barack Obama, through connections to the political machine in Chicago, lived in townhouses beyond the reach of most Chicago businessmen. Is that an “idolatry of money”? If not, why not?
Look: There is no denying that a bias in favor of big government remedies for poverty and injustice can be seen in Evangelii Gaudium. I would not bet against anyone who took the position that the Pope voted for high-tax wealth redistribution programs when he was still just private citizen Argentinean Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ. But Evangelii Gaudium does not demand agreement with him on these matters. Pope Francis is familiar with how the Popes who preceded him left room for the application of prudential judgment on the part of the faithful in these matters. He calls upon us to reject materialism and to reject economic thinking that pictures human beings as “consumer goods.” But he knows that individuals can behave that way whether they work on Wall Street, as a Democratic politician’s liaison to Washington lobbyists, or as part of a Communist Party apparatus that permits party leaders to live like kings while the masses struggle to make ends meet.
In one of those curious coincidences that happen every so often, I happened to listen to a radio interview with Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks, just one day after I read the reactions of the critics, pro and con, to Evangelii Gaudium. Schultz talked about how he learned early on in his career that it was good business as well as socially just to treat his workers as a valuable part of his company, by providing them with higher than average salaries and benefits, including a generous health-care package.
Schultz cares about profits. He makes a great deal of money. He is always looking to expand his operations and increase sales in his individual stores. He is an entrepreneur and a capitalist. I can’t imagine that the Pope would find anything to object to in the way he runs his business. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis is critical of “trickle-down” economics. But we have to be precise in how we apply that term. Howard Schultz is able to provide so well for his workers only because his coffeehouses are highly profitable. His profits trickle down to his workers in the form of good salaries and generous benefits. Business profits are a major source of the donations to Peter’s Pence; they trickle down.
The bottom line: I don’t think I am putting words in the Pope’s mouth when I say that he would agree that what he describes as the “idolatry of money” can be seen on both sides of the political divide; that money grubbers and exploiters of the common man wear many different political labels. The suburbs around Washington, D.C., are now the wealthiest part of the country. The suburban millionaires who live there secured their wealth by gaining access to the tax dollars raised in the name of regulating the private economy for the common good. They vote liberal Democrat. Their neighborhoods surround pockets of great poverty and economic despair in the D.C. area itself.
Maybe it is just me, but I see more economic injustice in that scenario than in some entrepreneur buying a second sports car or beachfront home outside Boca Raton.