I share the pope’s hostility to unbridled materialism, and to perversions and distortions of capitalism that result in one-sided exploitation of human beings. However, I’m glad Evangelii Gaudium was an “apostolic exhortation,” a statement that does not rise to the level of a papal encyclical.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, complained in a Dec. 2, 2013, column in the National Review that a national political commentator had tried to turn Francis into “a cartoonish socialist to quiet consciences rankled” by a challenging moral message. In the column, I liked Bishop Conley’s balanced discussion of how capitalism must operate within moral guidelines.
Evangelii Gaudium lacked that balance. It’s discussion of capitalism was a litany of hysterical assertions about man’s inhumanity to man and idolatrous worship of the “golden calf” of profit. There was no acknowledgment of the type of regulated capitalism practiced in capitalist economies. There also was no acknowledgement of how good capitalism has been for the common man and for the Catholic Church, especially in America.
Here’s an excerpt from paragraph 54:
[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
Never confirmed by the facts? People all over the planet still try to get to America because its economic system based on free-market capitalism produces the best for the most. Catholics have gone from struggling underdog to mainstream and even leadership in American society because they have used hard work and passion for education to succeed in an economic system that produces more prosperity for more people than any other, certainly more than systems hostile to capitalism.
“Trickle down” is a cynical left-wing description of capitalism in general, and tax breaks in particular. The left denounces as nonsense the idea that wealth retained in the form of tax breaks for successful capitalists will “trickle down” to the masses. That’s because the left does not understand capitalism. There’s nothing “trickle down” about it. It’s more like a flash flood of prosperity at the grassroots level where most Americans live and work. Capitalist business owners able to retain more of their wealth hire people, spend money on goods and services, and generate economic growth, which produces more tax revenue for government plus donations that fuel the mission of the Catholic Church, all of which benefits everyone.
Evangelii Gaudium seemed to imply that a homeless person dying of exposure is considered an acceptable loss by capitalism and its defenders because the demise of the homeless person doesn’t make the evening news, while the fluctuation of the stock market does. Maybe I am mistaken, but I took that example to mean that capitalism is killing people, and its defenders know it and don’t care.
The lonely and dignity-robbing death of a homeless person is a tragedy, but it’s not capitalism’s fault. I worked in a homeless shelter. I developed friendships with people who utilized the shelter. That doesn’t change the facts. Almost every guest was a current or recovering substance abuser, an ex-convict having trouble reintegrating into society, or someone with mental problems. Most of the guests had made decisions and taken actions that had messed up their lives. I’m not saying this to bash them. The point is that they weren’t victims of “the system.” No system can save people from the consequences of crawling into a bottle, breaking the law, or neglecting to take prescribed medication because the person decided he was “better” and didn’t need the meds anymore.
A homeless person’s death may not make the news, but the mission of homeless shelters is in the news and plastered on billboards all the time. Our American capitalist culture does not ignore the plight of the poor. What a blessing it is that our capitalist system produces enough tax revenue and private philanthropy to fund the efforts of homeless shelters and other public and private programs for people struggling to survive.
What worries me is that this kind of statement coming from such a respected source will be used by the left to perpetuate the New Deal/Great Society/Obamacare dogma that it’s OK, even a moral imperative, for the federal government to grow bigger and more belligerent toward capitalism to save the people. That seems to be the unspoken solution demanded by the statement’s unrelenting attack on capitalism.
I like this populist, unpretentious, man-of-the-people pope. There is video of one of my sons at the rope line in St. Peter’s Square waving an American flag and cheering wildly when Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis. I still get goose bumps over that fusion of faith, family, and country all in one overwhelming burst of joy.
How can I not root for the first pope named Francis? The middle name of my son who was at St. Peter’s Square is Francisco, in honor of Francis of Assisi, the saint the new pope invoked as inspiration for his papacy. My middle name is Francis, for Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits, the order of Catholic priests and brothers to which the pope belongs.
I welcome the leadership of Pope Francis. It is vital for a pope to participate in the conversation happening in the public arena. However, words must be chosen carefully. Follow-up spin by others saying “this is what the pope really meant” is ineffective and it undermines the Holy Father’s influence.
Some commentators claim that the English translation of Evangelii Gaudium is flawed and makes the statement seem more anti-capitalist than it is. Let’s not argue over it any longer. Let’s give the new pope a pass on this statement and stick with more than a century of papal encyclicals warning against big government as the answer to social and economic problems.
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On a related note about the joy of capitalism, the saga (page 7) of the uncle teaching his nephews about capitalism has another chapter:
My nephews’ arrival at the family Christmas gathering (December 2013) was slightly delayed as they were busy finishing up snow removal for their customers. Yes, not only have they learned what's involved in managing a family's finances and the importance of saving for the future, but now they are learning first-hand about business. They do lawn mowing during that season, leaf removal in the fall, and now snow removal for quite a list of folks in their small Iowa town. They also provide these services for free for some elderly neighbors and their church, so they know about the importance of helping others who truly need it.
What's interesting is to see how they approach figuring out how much to charge – what the competition is charging, their equipment maintenance and fuel costs, etc. One nephew is becoming an expert with spreadsheets. The other is keenly aware of watching the expenses and bottom line since the majority of their profits goes straight into their college savings funds.
I can assure you that nothing any current/future progressive teacher/professor tries to pass off as gospel will have any impact on these two young men now. I am so proud of how much they've learned and how well they put that knowledge into productive action.
O good tidings of great joy! There is hope for America.