The Good News Pope Francis Missed

Pope Francis's inaugural encyclical celebrated the gospel and excoriated markets.  But did he overlook some very good news?  [Credit: Telegraph]

Pope Francis’s inaugural encyclical celebrated the gospel and excoriated markets. But did he overlook some very good news? [Credit: Telegraph]

In writing about the joy of the gospel, Pope Francis overlooked some very good news – about markets, about compassion, about poverty.

His first encyclical (Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of The Gospel”) has drawn attention less for its focus on missions than for its economic pronouncements. President Obama favorably cited the document in his recent remarks on economic mobility, while some conservative commentators have offered up harsh criticisms.

The Pope sees a world marked by exclusion, financial domination and a “new idolatry of money” [paragraph 55]. Our time, he writes, is a historic “turning-point” for humanity [52]. Acknowledging that technology, both a result of prosperity and among its causes, has “improve[d] people’s welfare,” the Pope correctly reminds us that many “are barely living from day to day,” that their “hearts … are gripped by fear and desperation,” that “inequality is increasingly evident” [52]. He attributes inequality to “rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and technology,” which have bred “new and anonymous kinds of power” [52].

Belief in the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace” has prevented governments from “exercis[ing] any form of control” over them, engendering “a new tyranny” that is “invisible and often virtual,” and that “unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules” [56].

The Pope, in short, is no fan of markets. Nor is he much for the classic liberal notions of individual liberty and property. He criticizes what he calls “the inordinate defense of individual rights” [190]. When it comes to property, he gets a bit more cryptic, suggesting that private ownership is more a “social function” than a right.

Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them [189].

The “social function” of property involves “the universal destination of goods.”  Private ownership is secondary to that social function.  It is simply a way to induce people to “protect and increase” the value of property.  Once that function has been accomplished, the “increase” is to be “restore[d] to the poor” since it “belongs to them.” So if you own a piece of land, you are to plow it, plant and tend it, then “restore” the fruit of the harvest to those to whom it “belongs”: those who neither own the land nor cultivated it.  Such are the moral demands of “solidarity.”

Conservatives who believe in markets and in the Constitution’s protection of life, liberty and property may find this passage jarring. They should bear in mind that the Pope is saying very little new here. The document is generously sprinkled with quotes from his predecessors, who have written similar things. The Church never embraced John Locke (much less Adam Smith) or the American Revolution, and certainly not the French Revolution or even Italian Unification. It was conservative in the European sense, supporting (and, in the Papal States, practicing) feudalism and then modern monarchy.

In both, property ownership was concentrated in the hands of the few. Serfs generally didn’t own the land they worked and were denied rights that we take for granted, including enjoying the fruits of their labor. The land-holding class, however, had an obligation to provide for the safety and well-being of those who lived and worked on their property. They (theoretically) used their wealth to protect their charges.  The relationship between lord and serf was one of mutual commitment, sealed by an oath. The Church retains something of this faintly medieval impulse, professing that it holds inestimable wealth in property and treasure only for the benefit of its members and the broader world.

From this perspective, markets seem chaotic and barbaric. If everyone has rights, where are the mutual obligations and who assures that they are being met? The Pope’s horror at the marketplace is, in that sense, integrally related to his horror at modern sexual norms. Unregulated sex resembles unregulated markets, with individuals free to pursue their own preferences. No good can come of either. It is no accident that the document integrates criticism of free markets with criticism of free access to abortion [213]. Conservatives who cheer that affirmation should understand its inseverable tie to the economic pronouncements to which they object. Similarly, progressives who celebrate the Pope’s distaste for markets should also bear in mind what he says about abortion.

The Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations.’ It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life [214].

Like it or not, the encyclical merely reaffirms Church teaching on markets, property rights and abortion. The Pope can hardly be criticized for restating and repackaging the Church’s philosophy, however it may be received by moderns on the Left and Right. What I would criticize is the document’s dark and despairing tone in speaking of poverty and inequality. The Pope states that free markets render it impossible to solve any of the world’s problems.

As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems [202].

It is here that the Pope, in my view at least, ventures beyond expounding Church doctrine and misses one of the most promising realities of our age: markets and the wealth they produce are making great strides toward solving the problem of global poverty.  Consider this chart, which appeared last June in The Economist:

Chart from the Economist

The percentage of people living in extreme poverty – defined as the equivalent of $1.25 per day – dropped by half between 1990 and 2010 and is projected to continue its steep decline. The chart, which the Economist adapted from a recent Brookings Institute study, shows that, under some scenarios, extreme poverty might be virtually eliminated by 2030.

This is a remarkable and stunning development. Extreme poverty has been rampant throughout the ages. In most countries, as the Economist recently noted, “Poverty was not even a problem; it was a plain, unchangeable fact.”

That fact is now changing and changing abruptly, raising substandard living conditions that have persisted throughout most of the world for millennia. The poverty rate is falling across the globe, in large part, because of the growth and liberalization of markets in developing economies and the technological improvements and economic growth they have engendered.

Poverty also has declined because of the charity of wealthy individuals (some religious, some not) and their governments (which derive the bulk of their resources from wealthy individuals and productive markets). To cite but two examples, Congress, at the urging of former President George W. Bush, in 2003 launched the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), as the largest effort by any nation in history to combat a single disease.  The Global Fund cooperates closely with PEPFAR, fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It is a public-private partnership that combines government aid with private philanthropy. 54 countries have together pledged $28 billion to the effort. Successful capitalists also are doing their parts. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $1.4 billion to the Global Fund, Coca Cola $1 billion, and malaria initiatives sponsored by the Methodist and Lutheran churches an unspecified amount.

It is not merely the magnitude and generosity of these efforts that impresses. While the Pope notes that “a number of diseases are spreading” [52], the most prevalent and pernicious are being prevented, treated and, in some cases, are on the verge of being eradicated. During its first five years, PEPFAR supported the provision of treatment to more than 2 million people with HIV, care to more than 10 million people, including more than 4 million orphans and vulnerable children, and services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV during nearly 16 million pregnancies.  It recently announced the millionth child born HIV-free as a result of these efforts.

Global AIDS infection and mortality rates are dramatically declining, in part as a consequence of these interventions. Polio cases have plunged by 99 percent since 1988. Malaria incidence has fallen by at least 50 percent in one-third of the countries where the disease is endemic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $2 billion in pursuit of its eradication.

The positive effects of these efforts by successful capitalists and the governments of advanced, market-based economies are too numerous to mention. Between 1970 and 2010, global life expectancies improved by 11 years for men and 12 years for women, an astonishing advance in the course of a generation.  Annual deaths of children under 5 have declined from 12.6 per million to 6.6 million since 2000. Education also is improving, with global literacy rates reaching 84 percent in 2010 . Progress is being made against malnutrition, with 156 million fewer people not having enough to eat than in 1990.

I could go on, but the point is clear enough: though they still have a long way to go, efforts to reduce poverty by addressing its causes and alleviating its consequences are enjoying a level of success never before seen in world history.

That isn’t to say that aid programs are without their critics or flaws. But even in his recent scathing piece on Western aid to Africa, Paul Theroux acknowledged, “Never have so many people, so many agencies, so many stratagems, so much money been deployed to improve Africa.”  Even if Theroux is right that they’re underachieving (and statistics seem to belie that assessment), the amount and extraordinary nature of this aid suggests that the Pope may have it wrong when he argues that economic freedom breeds indifference toward the poor.

The encyclical depicts wealthy nations and individuals as morally obtuse consumers who neglect their neighbors’ needs.  They are, the Pope writes, “in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality” [208].  Though that description surely fits in some cases, it misses a larger reality.  The freedom to acquire wealth and its antecedent right to own property not only drive economic growth and raise living standards but also enable humanitarian acts.  Far from hardening hearts, prosperity often softens them, inspiring acts of charity and generosity.  The aggregate effects of those acts are seen in declining rates of extreme poverty, morbidity and child mortality.

The Pope’s focus on the poor is well-placed. Global poverty continues to pose a daunting challenge, despite remarkable progress of efforts to reduce it. Caring for the poor is a mark of faith, mercy a characteristic of those who celebrate God’s mercy, grace a trait of those who have been embraced by God’s grace. It is at the heart of the gospel, the good news that animates Christians of all confessions.

The Pope is right to remind us that Jesus came to “proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). He might perhaps consider that his mistrust of markets has caused him to overlook their role in producing some very good news about the poor.

One thought on “The Good News Pope Francis Missed

  1. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs- Karl Marx and Pope Francis. He is CEO of a multi-billion (trillion) dollar organization which takes money from its members,
    invoking God, to use for its operating expenses while protecting and augmenting its capital wealth. His musings about a “poor Church caring for the poor” are pure theopolitik and the height of hypocracy. The only pope to actually live under marxism-leninism conspired with Reagan and Thatcher to bring down the soviet collectivists and free his native Poland to the western version of free markets. Even the dictators in Beijing abandoned marxism for their version of a market economy. Look at the results.
    Looking forward to the Vatican museum yard sale with proceeds going to the poor.
    Who is John Galt?

Comments are closed.