The Joy of the Gospel and the Economy, Anchor, January 10, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
January 10, 2014

The most controversial and commented upon part of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) was the section on economic realities. Many of the initial press reports focused not on the main point of the exhortation — the joyful spread of the Good News — but forceful papal condemnations of an “economy that kills,” the  “dictatorship of an impersonal economy,” “idolatry of money,” “trickle-down theories,” the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace,” trust in “the invisible hand of the market.”

To some Americans, it seemed like the Pope was flunking free market economies for failing to help lift the poor from indigence while implicitly favoring socialist solutions. That was something bound to irk the millions of Americans, especially Catholic, whose immigrant parents and grandparents arrived penniless but who through hard work, risk and education were able to help their families rise from poverty to the middle class to beyond.

Contrary to the way Pope Francis’ words were spun, he said explicitly that he was not offering a document of the Church’s social magisterium applying the teaching of the Church to specifically economic matters.

If he were interested in doing that, he would have naturally analyzed other models for the economic organization of society, such as Blessed John Paul II did in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, when he taught that socialist models failed because of an inadequate anthropology and that free market economies, tied to a just rule of law, sound democratic governments and an understanding of freedom tied to the moral good, are “certainly” the best model to be proposed to poor third world countries searching for the path to true economic and civil progress.

Rather that continuing that social magisterium, Pope Francis was writing an exhortation to help those who “are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking that is more humane, noble and fruitful.” He was writing a pastoral document meant to point out how the modern idolatry of mammon is hindering the proclamation and living of the Gospel, particularly with regard to Christian attitudes and actions with regard to the poor. All his economic criticisms are made with that purpose in mind.

Pope Francis’ main target is a consumerist ideology that desolates the heart with frivolous pleasures, blunts the conscience, and fosters an egocentrism that excludes God and others. “This is a very real danger for believers, too,” he writes in the second paragraph of the exhortation. “Many fall prey to it.” It enslaves people in the “worship of the ancient golden calf” and fosters a “disposable” culture and a “globalized indifference” that treats human beings, especially the poor, as “consumer goods to be exploited and then discarded as leftovers. This throw-away culture, he notes, doesn’t consider it news “when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure,” but obsesses “when the stock market loses two points.”

In two daily homilies, Pope Francis explained why this ferocious idolatry of money hinders the proclamation and living out of the Gospel.

On June 22, he mentioned how Jesus, in the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, taught clearly that “riches and worldly concerns … choke the word of God” and prevent it from growing.

On September 20, pondering Jesus’ words that we cannot serve two masters, God and money, Pope Francis said, “There is something about the attitude of love towards money that takes us away from God.” St. Paul said that greed is “the root of all evil,” and Pope Francis noted that such love of money “makes you deviate from authentic faith. It cuts you off from the faith, and weakens you so that you lose it.” It leads people to place their faith, hope and love vainly in money and what money can provide than in God.

If Pope Francis’ biggest criticism was of the consumerist worship of mammon, his biggest concern was to help the poor. One of the consequences of a “deified market” is the ideology that “economic growth alone, encouraged by a free market, will by itself succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” From his own experience serving the poor in the sprawling shanty-towns of Buenos Aires, he knows from experience that prosperity never seems to make it to the villas miseria.

His strong words against the idolatry of the market seem to be based on that Argentine experience. If we were exposed to crony insider capitalism, corruption, lack of economic opportunity and unfair application of just laws that has been the history of the Argentine and several other Latin American “market” based economies, it would be hard not to share those criticisms, not to mention his censure of the extreme anarcho-libertarians who uphold the “absolute autonomy” of the markets, something that was firmly rejected here in our country at the end of the Gilded Age.

Pope Francis’ main desire is to include the poor more effectively in the economy so that they will have the opportunity to rise out of misery. He wants to foster an economy that serves all people, not just those in power or with greater opportunities.

Sound economists, looking at the recent experience of East Asia not to mention the history of the United States and other prosperous economies, have pointed out that the data indisputably show that the best means we’ve discovered for lifting whole peoples out of poverty is through well-functioning free market economies tied to moral virtues like honesty and diligence and protected by just and enforced laws.

That obviously doesn’t mean, however, that the profits trickle down to everyone or that everyone has similar basic means to enter. There are obvious areas of needed reform, of structure and of economic agents. With his powerful exhortation, Pope Francis is calling all people, especially those in the financial sectors and government, to an examination of conscience concerning the means to make sure the economy is just and charitable, that it serves and includes, rather than dominates and kills, especially the most vulnerable.