News Flash: On Economy, Pope is Catholic
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2014

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, contains over 50,000 words and runs over 100 pages. Some critics, however, have focused entirely on just two paragraphs in which the pope warns about placing too much confidence in free market theories.

After reminding us that human beings should not be considered “consumer goods to be used and then discarded” the pope wrote: “In this context, some 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.”

Further on he adds: “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.”

Because of these lines Pope Francis has been accused of being “a Marxist,” “a socialist,” “wholly incompetent,” and an “enemy of freedom.”

News flash for those critics: The Pope is Catholic. Pope Francis did not write anything that his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had not said before. Nor did the pope’s comments stray from well-established Catholic social doctrine.

It should be clear from the words themselves that the pope did not issue a blanket condemnation of the free market. Nor did the pope embrace Marxism or socialism. Only those who erroneously think that anything other than an unfettered liberty in economics is, by definition, Marxism or socialism could reach that conclusion. These same narrow thinkers mistakenly believe that any desire for a just distribution of the world’s goods is an embrace of communism.

At the heart of Pope Francis’ comments is something the Church has long taught: we cannot put our faith in any economic philosophy. The economy exists for the person and is a human activity. The free market may work at times but because it is a human institution is also a flawed institution. We should not raise it to an ideology wherein we believe that it is the only answer to inequalities and exclusion. This is what Pope John Paul II warned about when he cautioned against the “idolatry of the market.”

Ironically, the outcry from some quarters against the pope’s statements demonstrates the very problem to which the pope was trying to call attention. Some people embrace free market theories or capitalism as if they are God-given truths. In truth, as Catholic apologist Mark Shea has noted, they are not part of sacred Tradition, but are “human traditions.” Like all human things, economic practices can be used for good or perverted to evil ends.

St. Paul warned about adherence to human philosophies in his letter to the Colossians. “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

This is what the Pope, like the popes before him, is trying to say. He is saying that the free market is all fine and good if it is, in fact, fine and good. But the proof is in the pudding. Don’t assume as a belief that the free market is by its nature fine and good. We have a moral obligation, using governmental action if necessary, to make sure that it or any economic system works to meet meet basic human needs and further justice, especially for the poor and vulnerable.