As a non-Catholic fan of the last two popes — one a hero, one a genius — I’ve been following with interest the controversy over the new pope’s first exhortation. Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium sparked a firestorm with its criticism of free markets and “trickle down theories,” and its apparent call for the state to take action against them. The great Rush Limbaugh confessed himself “befuddled” by the message which sounded to him like “pure Marxism,” and Breitbart’s Big Peace site had a post headlined, “Pope Francis Attacks Capitalism, Calls for State Control.” In response, Peggy Noonan wrote what I thought was one of her weaker columns defending the pope as a non-economist and saying, “I don’t think he’s saying be a leftist but something more revolutionary and fundamental: Be a saint. Be better, kinder, more serious and loving, and help create systems that reflect good, kind, loving people.” I much preferred the touchingly ferocious and loyal post from Rebecca Hamilton at Patheos, “If You’re Looking for Me, You’ll Find Me Standing With the Pope.” She lets go with both barrels at commentators on the left and right who try to tailor Catholicism to fit their political point of view:
These people have become so arrogant that they think they can talk to the Pope the way they talk to their toady political religious leaders that they’ve bought and own. Since they can’t even get an audience with the Pope, they are going directly to their cult-like following among their readers and listeners and are doing their best to get them riled up into a froth of Pope-hating.
Best of all, by my lights, was the scholarly Michael Novak’s piece “Agreeing With Pope Francis,” over at NRO. Novak points out that the original Spanish of the pope’s message is more nuanced than the English translation, and that Francis’s South American experience might have given him a different view of capitalism than he would have gotten here in the states. Novak feels that what the pope means is that capitalism alone won’t help the poor without restraints of both law and conscience.
Evangelii Gaudium is nearly 300 pages long and I haven’t read the whole thing. Still, I skimmed much of it and read the relevant parts carefully and, as a friendly outsider, I can’t help thinking Francis spoke unwisely here. As Novak points out, democracy and capitalism, with the proper restraints, are more likely to bring people out of poverty than state-mandated systems. And given the pope’s power and influence, and the unspeakable need of so many poor in the world, it does seem Francis ought to be clear whether he is criticizing the best system we’ve got or condemning it outright. Knock the consumerism and amorality of capitalism for sure, but why even appear to give aid and comfort to the socialists who have destroyed so many lives in the name of “equality”?
Hey, the guy’s still a rookie. There’s no call to jump down his throat, but by the same token, he’s the pope, there’s no need to make weak excuses for him or reinterpret him for himself as if he were Chance in Being There. (“Francis wants to get us thinking about what we should be thinking about. He wants to invite thought. And he’s succeeding, isn’t he?” writes Noonan. Meh.)
Free markets aren’t perfect — no system that involves human beings is perfect — and Ayn Randian blather that excludes the necessity for charity and compassion or even some regulation is ultimately going to be as destructive to the cause as socialism itself. But true, honest, regulated capitalism — so desperately needed in the most desperate economies in the world — is under fire everywhere from the power-mad do-gooders of the left. In the name of the poor — which is to say, in the name of Christ — it should be boldly defended by the moral man.
The pope, who seems pretty clearly to be not only a moral but a truly good man, might want to rethink and speak more clearly.