Charlie Brown, Pope Francis and Political Economy

Remember the teacher’s voice in the Charlie Brown cartoons “Wah, wah, wah”?

That’s what I hear when I listen (most) clergy talk about economics and business.  You know it’s not uncommon for clergy to hold forth about these matters even while professing no particular expertise on the subject. As a result what they usually offer is a pretentious muddled folly that seeks to justify itself by falsely claiming to be a brave prophetic stance.

Now of course there are injustices in our economic life. But these injustices are not any particular economic system but because ours is a fallen world. Seeing this the easy response is to say to hell with the world and withdraw into sectarianism instead of doing the hard work of helping form the consciences and moral characters of those in business.

Look not every priest or minister can be expected to have the ability to respond effectively to ever moral ill. Humility means understanding this about myself AND passing over in silence problems I can’t solve because they reflect issues I don’t understand.

More importantly, ill chosen, to say nothing of uncharitable, words about business and economic matters won’t encourage those in business is to seek out pastors for spiritual guidance. Instead, they’ll just ignore us or, worse, walk away from Christ and the Church.

Part of what brings this to mind is a recent essay by the sociologist and Lutheran theologian Peter Berger. In his essay (here), he reflects on Pope Francis’ recent call for the Catholic Church to be “a ‘poor church’, a ‘church for the poor’”. These are certainly themes worthy of reflection. But Berger then shifts his focus and looks at Francis’s statements

…on “greed” and “inequality”, social maladies due to “neoliberalism” and “unfettered capitalism”. If this is the direction in which he is going, one must worry about his view of the world. How does he understand it? Specifically, has he understood the basic fact: Capitalism has been most successful in producing sustained economic growth. And that it is this growth which has been most effective in greatly reducing poverty? Just where is there “unfettered capitalism” in the world today?

Anyone who has read my writing here knows that I think that the free market is compatible with the Gospel and I am skeptical of criticism of income inequality.

At the same time, charity, to say nothing of my commitment to the truth, requires that I point out that in his recent Apostolic Exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium) Pope Francis doesn’t once use the phrase “unfettered capitalism.” This is a turn of phrase made popular by the media voices.

In neither the English nor Spanish text does the Pope once use the phrase “unfettered capitalism.” This is a phrase made popular by the media. What is condemned is “inordinate consumption” and “unbridled consumerism” which when “combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. (#60). It is worth noting that the word consumerism appears in the text 4 times in along with the phrase “consumer goods” and “consumerist.” Each time these words are used it is in the context of criticizing not the free market but materialism a theme the pontiff lays out in his second paragraph:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

Christian defenders of classical political and economic liberalism need to bear in mind I think that both the free market and democracy depend on a virtuous citizenry. Berger points this out when he points out that

Since the economic reforms that began in 1979 China has been the clearest example of “unfettered capitalism” (or, if you will, of the “neoliberal Washington Consensus”). It is still “fettered” by the bulky presence of inefficient state-owned enterprises, debris of the socialist past, with privileged access to capital and government favors.

There is no question that the free market has done more to help raise people out of poverty than any other economic model and that democracy (and specifically the American Experiment) has been a like blessing for personal liberty and human rights. But again, ours is a fallen world. This means that even the best economic and political systems are corrupted by human sinfulness. In pointing out the materialism and consumerism that has gripped many, the Pope is saying much the same thing as the Orthodox Church. For example in the  Basis of the Social Concept of the Orthodox Church, we read:

The principal reason for the desire of many of our contemporaries to escape into a realm of alcoholic or narcotic illusions is spiritual emptiness, loss of the meaning of life and blurred moral guiding lines. Drug-addiction and alcoholism point to the spiritual disease that has affected not only the individual, but also society as a whole. This is a retribution for the ideology of consumerism, for the cult of material prosperity, for the lack of spirituality and the loss of authentic ideals. In her pastoral compassion for the victims of alcoholism and drug-addiction, the Church offers them spiritual support in overcoming the vice. Without denying the need of medical aid to be given at the critical stages of drug-addiction, the Church pays special attention to the prevention and rehabilitation which are the most effective when those suffering participate consciously in the eucharistic and communal life.

Strong words but still true words. And words that find a resonance in Pope Francis’ thought:

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 keep 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.

Christian support of the free market and democracy is always only a relative support. This doesn’t have to understood as a call for more governmental regulation. But the Gospel does require that we call ourselves and our neighbor to repentance and to the cultivation of those habits of thought and action that foster human flourishing and personal holiness. It is virtue above all else that makes the market free and protects human liberty.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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