A “Son of the Church,” Francis Confounds Both the Right and the Left

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis’ economic teachings are squarely within the Catholic social tradition.

Some on the political left claim that Pope Francis shares their economic views. CNN ran a piece claiming that the Pope is the “best friend” of the labor movement, and that his speeches sound like those of a “fiery union organizer.” The Washington Post likened Francis to Justice Kennedy—appointed by “conservative” cardinals, but issuing statements that have “upended” their expectations. According to The Nation, “Catholics aligned with big business and the religious right, who tended to thrive under the last two popes, have found themselves squirming under Francis.” Rolling Stone brands Francis a “radical” who is “far to the left not only of the Republican Party but of most Democrats, certainly President Obama and Hillary Clinton.” Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, says that the Pope’s message “amounts to socialism.” 

Some on the political right have used similar terms to define (and to dismiss) the Pope’s teachings. Rush Limbaugh claimed that “the economic aspects of what the Pope is talking about clearly are Marxist.”  Jeb Bush assured voters that he does not “get economic policy” from his bishop, cardinal, or pope. George Will claims that Americans “cannot simultaneously honor him [Francis] and celebrate their nation’s premises.”     

Both sides are mistaken about the Pope’s teachings and the nature of Catholic social doctrine (CSD). The Pope’s writings and interviews show that his teachings are within the Catholic social tradition, and that he supports business creativity, job creation, economic growth, and free markets.      

When asked about Church teaching on moral issues, Francis said that he is a “son of the Church.” CSD is moral theology based on a reflection on the complex realities of politics and economics in light of the Christian faith and Church tradition. It develops from the application of perennial Christian truths (about the human person, the family, and society) to new issues. CSD is not an ideology, does not offer technical solutions to political or economic problems, and is not a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. The Church does not propose political or economic systems, programs, or platforms. Instead, CSD critically evaluates such systems (including both capitalism and socialism) to determine whether they serve human rights and integral human development. 

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis says that he does not propose a political ideology, or a sort of “unruly activism” or “irresponsible populism.” Far from being a maverick, Francis canonized John XXIII and John Paul II, heralding them as men of courage who cooperated with the Holy Spirit to give direction, renewal, and growth to the Church. Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si relies heavily on the encyclicals of his predecessors that support private property, economic initiative, and a free economy.   

In Mater et Magistra, Saint John XXIII adopted the teaching of Pius XI, who emphasized “that no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism.” The basic tenets of socialism (the class struggle, the abolition of private ownership, and a materialist ideology) cannot be reconciled with Christianity because of materialism’s fundamental indifference to the nature of the human person as created and loved by God. According to CSD, the human person is made in the image and likeness of a triune God, and thus is called to a life of love and service to others. Christians serve the poor because they are children of God, and because Christ lived the life of the poor and taught that loving the poor reflected friendship with him. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Socialism’s denial of this highest dignity of the poor cannot be reconciled with Christianity.

Francis agrees that “Marxist ideology is wrong.” He laments that “the Communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the center of the Gospel.”

Firmly within the Catholic social tradition, Francis emphasizes that work is the key to addressing social issues. Work is the setting for “rich personal growth,” where a person can live a dignified life, live out one’s values, develop and apply one’s talents, fulfill one’s intellectual, creative, and physical abilities, and give glory to God. In addition to being the means of earning a living and supporting a family, work is an intrinsically good opportunity to cooperate with God in cultivating and caring for creation (Genesis 2:15), and in making the world more “inhabitable” and “beautiful.” Work also gives hope for the future by enabling persons to make marital commitments, start families, and be open and generous toward children. As Francis said last month:

In speaking about a serious, honest person, the most beautiful thing that can be              said is: “he or she is a worker,” one who works, one who in a community doesn’t just live off of others. There are many Argentinians today, I see, and I will say what we say: “No vive de arriba” [Don’t just live it up]. …        

And St. Paul would not fail to warn Christians: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10)—that’s a good recipe for losing weight, you don’t work, you don’t eat! The Apostle explicitly refers to the false spiritualism of some who indeed live off their brothers and sisters “not doing any work” (2 Thess. 3:11).

Thus, Francis teaches that “there is no worse material poverty” than unemployment. When one lacks work, one lacks dignity, hope, and the opportunity to develop and fulfill oneself and serve others. Francis would agree with President Reagan that “the best social program is a job,” and with Pope Benedict XVI that a society must “continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.” 

Francis has praised those who create jobs in an economy. In his two major documents, Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si, he writes that business is a “noble vocation” because it produces wealth, increases the goods of the world, makes those goods more accessible to all, and creates jobs. Laudato Si states: “In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favors productive diversity and business creativity.” He advocates an economy that enables numerous and diverse enterprises that create greater employment opportunities.   

CSD reflects this teaching, which may also stem from Francis’ experience in Latin America. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto conducted a study that showed how difficult it is to start a business in Peru. He tested the system by hiring a team to start a small shirt factory. His team ended up having to spend nine months obtaining the permits required to start the business, and along the way were asked for bribes 10 times. The permits cost more money than two years of the average wage of a Peruvian worker. His team had to make two bribes to overcome the several delays in the process. Even after they established their business, credit to expand operations was not available. 

NPR reports that when communist guerrillas learned of de Soto’s ideas promoting more widespread access to capital, they bombed his office, killing three people. The World Bank took note of the study, and now ranks countries based on the ease of doing business. Out of 189 countries, Singapore is ranked first, the United States is ranked seventh, Peru (with reforms) is now ranked 35th, while Argentina (Francis’ home country) is ranked 124th, behind Guyana. When Francis lived among the working poor in Argentina, he must have learned that the system deprives ordinary persons of the means to start a business (permits, credit, private ownership) and to contribute their talents, effort, and creativity to economic life. 

To counter this type of corrupt state “capitalism,” Saints John XXIII and John Paul II emphasized human rights, especially the fundamental right to economic initiative, as a requirement of a just economic system. In Pacem in Terris, Saint John XXIII wrote that a person has an “inherent right” to an opportunity to work and to the “exercise of personal initiative in the work he does.” In Solicitudo Rei Socialis, Saint John Paul II upheld a fundamental right to economic initiative, which is a person’s right to freely exercise “creative subjectivity” in the economic sphere. The denial of this right in the name of “equality” for everyone ends up destroying the spirit of initiative and replacing it with “passivity, dependence, and submission to the bureaucratic apparatus.”     

In Centessimus Annus (cited by Francis seven times in Laudato Si), Saint John Paul II taught that the inefficiency of collectivist systems was based on the violation of human rights of private initiative, private property, and “to freedom in the economic sector.” A society must ensure these rights with the rule of law, property rights, and ease of access to business permits and credit, while not overburdening businesses with punitive taxes and regulations. 

The Church also acknowledges the “legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well” by effectively employing productive factors to correspond with human needs.  Saint John Paul II summarized:

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 [that capitalism is the model for economic progress], even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy,” or simply “free economy.”

Francis also understands that jobs don’t just happen, but need to be created by entrepreneurs working in a free economy to skillfully employ human capital to produce a good or service that better meets human needs. At a steelworks plant in Terni, Italy, he said that unemployment needs to be addressed by the “creativity of entrepreneurs and brave artisans who look to the future with confidence and hope.” He acknowledged “the great merit of those business people who have never stopped working hard in spite of all, investing and taking risks in order to guarantee employment.” 

Saint John Paul II also had significant moral concerns about certain forms of capitalism:

But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical 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.

Francis shares these concerns, and teaches that the purpose of an economy is not solely to maximize wealth, but to serve the dignity of the human person by providing adequate goods and services, and employment, so that families (the vital cell of society) can form and thrive. His concern is the harm to humanity that tends to result from an unregulated market economy within a “culture of relativism” that “drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects.” When a market judges the human person solely on one’s ability to be materially productive, a market will fail to properly value and protect those who (for example) are elderly, poor, uneducated, severely disabled, or ill. A market solely driven by utilitarian values will fail to acknowledge and reward a mother of four children who transitions from her career to focus on raising her children. Even though her loving work is a 24/7 effort that creates essential human capital for the future of society, the market fails to value or reward it. Moreover, the purpose of a company is not only to maximize profits, but to enable a wider community of persons to engage in dignified, fulfilling work.   

According to Francis, a market guided by a culture of relativism will fail to limit or prevent transactions that directly violate the human and natural ecologies, including “human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species.” Legal and regulatory measures are essential to reform such a system, but are not enough. The priority of the Catholic social tradition is to promote a culture that respects human rights and appreciates the values of human life, the family, community, service, religion, and simplicity.   

Francis opposes what he calls the “planners of wellbeing” who promote a utilitarian mindset of greed, consumption, and waste without regard to their impact on human or the natural ecology. He praises the hard work and sacrifice of poor families to preserve the “special humanity” of the family bond, much to the irritation of “those planners of wellbeing who consider attachments, procreation, and familial bonds as secondary variables to the quality of life.”    

This critique is fully within the Catholic social tradition. Back in 1931, Pius XI taught that the “sordid love of wealth” is the “shame and great sin of our age.”  Saint John Paul II opposed a consumerist society that emphasizes “purely utilitarian values” and “immediate gratification.” He warned that such a society leads people to consider their lives “as a series of sensations to be experienced rather than as a work to be accomplished.”

Instead, Francis proposes a simple, more contemplative lifestyle that is “capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption.” What the human person needs most is not the latest Apple gadget, but the love of God, time for prayer and the reading of Scripture, and the readiness to interact with one’s neighbor in a spirit of charity and gratitude. This “less is more” approach “allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.” Thus, “Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.” 

One may ask if people adopted this simple, humble, less wasteful lifestyle, would that spur enough economic growth? The growth of families with children is the answer. According to Francis, “the masterpiece of society is the family: a man and a woman who love each other! This is the masterpiece!” This marital love must be faithful, persevering, and fruitful. He says that “Jesus does not like marriages in which couples do not want children, in which they want to remain fruitless.” Such arrangements are promoted by the “well-off culture” that says “not having children is better, this way you can travel and see the world, you can have a house in the country and relax!” It is a culture that suggests that “it is more comfortable to have a little dog and two cats” so that “love is given to the two cats and the little dog.” Francis reminds us that over time, old age arrives “in solitude, with the bitterness of awful loneliness: it is fruitless, it does not do what Jesus does with his Church.”

This teaching by Pope Francis can have a real impact on the economy because more families with children are needed for sustainable economic growth. According to a recent report by the US Census Bureau, married parents with children have more education, wealth, and spending power than all other household formations. Two-parent families with children need housing, and thus they drive the demand in the housing market. In addition to raising the workforce of the next generation, families with children also drive consumer spending on the many goods needed for growing families like cars, durable goods, furniture, baby products, clothes, shoes, sporting goods, and numerous services, including orthodontia and other health care, education, etc.

While married couples with children are the wealthiest households on average, and contribute the most to economic consumption, their numbers have been declining in the US for decades. Between 1970 and 2012, the share of households that were married couples with children under 18 dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent. As a result, even though the overall US population increased from 205 million in 1970 to 314 million by 2012, the number of married couples with children actually declined during that period, from 25 million to 24 million. During that same period, the average number of people per household declined from 3.1 to 2.6. This significant demographic shift provides a structural drag on economic growth for the foreseeable future. The demographic situation is even worse in Europe.     

Politicians will continue to try various economic policies to stimulate growth while traditional family households dwindle. The federal government has tried zero percent interest rates, hundreds of billions of dollars of stimulus spending, borrowing and spending trillions of dollars from China, Japan, and other nations, and quantitative easing (when central banks electronically print money to buy securities and government bonds); all of which have resulted in minimal economic growth. Policies favoring increased immigration (of highly skilled workers) and stimulating foreign investment may also be tried and found insufficient to overcome the negative economic impact of the demographic decline.

In this current campaign cycle, politicians will once again elevate economic policies above “family values” or the “social issues.” Pope Francis teaches us that family values remain the key to real, sustained, economic growth, and that a nation ignores (or undermines) them at its peril.

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About Michael J. Nader 4 Articles
Michael J. Nader is an Employment Law attorney. He earned a JD from the Notre Dame Law School, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, and an LL.M. at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. He has also served as a judicial clerk for two federal judges at the district court and appellate levels.