I’ve not been fully sure what to “make” of Pope Francis. He is clearly a man of God with a deep love for the poor and an even deeper personal humility. But how is one to respond to his pronouncements on economic and environmental issues?…

Pope Francis and the Caring Society, ed. Robert M. Whaples (Independent Institute, 2017).

pope francis and the caring societyAs a conservative, creed-based evangelical, I have been a great fan of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. While an alarming number of Protestant leaders have compromised the essential theological doctrines and/or moral-ethical teachings of the historic Christian faith, these two great popes have held on tightly to orthodoxy and steered their Church against the rising tides of secular humanism, totalitarianism, and relativism.

But what about Pope Francis? Along with many other conservative evangelicals and Catholics, I’ve not been fully sure what to “make” of Pope Francis. He is clearly a man of God with a deep love for the poor and an even deeper personal humility. And he is certainly a champion of Nicene orthodoxy. But how is one to respond to his pronouncements on economic and environmental issues? Is he a liberation theologian in disguise, secretly longing for the downfall of capitalism? Has he so bought into the apocalyptic scenarios of the global warming agenda that he would be willing to disrupt the free market and put the worldwide economy at risk to pursue it?

For those who share my questions and concerns, I am glad to announce that a book now exists that offers a fair, accessible, irenic overview and analysis of Francis’ economic views, as they are expressed in his speeches, his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013), and his encyclical Laudato si (2015). Edited by Robert M. Whaples, Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Pope Francis and the Caring Society offers seven incisive essays, bookended by a lengthy introduction by Dr. Whaples and conclusion by Robert P. Murphy, a Research Assistant Professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University.

What makes this collection so effective is that it devotes equal time to three key issues: 1) establishing the full context for Pope Francis’ pronouncements; 2) evaluating and critiquing those pronouncements from numerous angles; 3) demonstrating by hard statistical evidence that capitalism has proven to be the greatest liberator of the poor. At all times, the authors treat Pope Francis with the respect he deserves, while seeking to establish a healthy and fruitful dialogue between the spiritual and pastoral concerns of the Pope and the more practical, utilitarian concerns of economists.

Nearly everyone knows that Pope Francis spent most of his life working in Argentina. Less are aware of the tortured history of that country. As Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute and a fellow at the Center for Law and Religion at Emory, explains: “In the annals of economic decline, Argentina is invariably cited as the twentieth century’s textbook case of how a once wealthy, relatively politically stable country moved over a series of decades to being a nation characterized by profound political instability and a steady march toward economic decrepitude” (52).

The populist, nationalistic, celebrity-focused rule of the Perón family—familiar to many in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s emotionally powerful musical Evita—has left Argentina with a mindset that tends “to see foreign investment and companies as exploiters and extractors rather than as sources of income and capital for the host nation” (54). Peronism, Dr. Gregg documents, led to swings between unsuccessful attempts to impose high tariffs and redistribution of wealth to clientelism and crony capitalism driven by political favors rather than consumer demands.

The reason this historical context is vital for understanding Pope Francis’ economic views is that it means the capitalism he experienced in Argentina was deeply flawed and had little to do with the free market theories of Adam Smith. The “capitalism” that flowed out of Peronism did cause great damage to the poor and helpless, leading to a needed backlash/response know as la teología del pueblo (theology of the people) that was itself tainted by the populism and personality cult of Peronism. Though Dr. Gregg sees good aspects to la teología del pueblo, an ideal that Pope Francis seems clearly to espouse, he also discerns a naïveté at its core that is too quick to distrust all elites.

But the economic and political ills of Argentina only form half of the context within which to understand Evangelii gaudium and Laudato si. As Andrew M. Yuengert, Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Social Science and Professor of Economics at Seaver College, Pepperdine University, and A.M.C. Waterman, retired fellow at St. John’s College, Winnipeg, Canada, both document, Pope Francis’ theories are strongly embedded in the papal pronouncements of the last century, particularly those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

When read in the context of previous popes, Dr. Yuengert argues, Pope Francis’ views line up rather well. Like his predecessors, he understands that “markets can serve as an outlet for creative human agency in promoting the efficient provision of goods. Markets cannot, however, be left to function without the constraints of a healthy culture and a government able to place markets at the service of the common good” (33). Though Pope Francis’ often “deep hostility to markets” (48) is troubling and dangerous, his call for oversight and a focus on the common good is not, in itself, new or radical; the same note is struck in the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In a similar way, Pope Francis’ focus on the environmental crisis does not set him wildly apart from earlier Catholic social teaching. Although John Paul II, having lived through the evils of communism, was far more positive than his predecessors about the free market, Waterman traces a “distrust of the unregulated market economy that [has] characterized papal social doctrine until very lately and that Francis is seen to have revived” (132). Though Waterman concedes that “Pope Francis’ antimarket bias… sometimes looks like willful blindness” (141) in the face of capitalism’s global success at lifting up the poor, he can still be favorably viewed within a tradition that includes John Paul II’s focus on “human ecology” (135).

Philip Booth, professor of finance, public policy, and ethics at St. Mary’s University in London, finds a similar dynamic in Pope Francis’ relationship to private property. Though Dr. Booth fairly criticizes Pope Francis, as do most of the other writers, for not seeing the vital link between free market capitalism, private property, and the real alleviation of poverty, he does remind his readers that the John Locke view of private property as a natural right has not been the central teaching of the Catholic Church. True, Pope Leo XIII, in his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, “came close to stating—and certainly implied—that property rights are a natural right” (160); still, Aquinas came closer to the center of traditional Catholic teaching in arguing that private property needed to justify itself by its promotion of human flourishing and the common good.

Gabriel X. Martinez, chair and associate professor of business and economics at Ave Maria University, stresses, like most of his fellow essayists, that Pope Francis must be read in the context of previous popes. Indeed, he argues that what often appears controversial in Pope Francis’ writings is not so much a breach in papal thought as it is his concern over “our lack of concern…. The pope is concerned with a politics of indifference to injustice, not with the theoretical or practical advantages of this or that other economic system” (70).

Inasmuch as Pope Francis would steer us away from oligarchies that create an uneven playing field, Dr. Martinez agrees with him. “The free market,” he explains, “depends on open and fair competition, on a level playing field, but it is a natural human propensity that people with economic power will seek political power and that people who have political power will use it to increase their wealth” (76).

Along with Dr. Martinez and the rest of the contributors, Lawrence J. McQuillan, director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation, and Hayeon Carol Park, research associate at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, applaud Pope Francis for his concern for the poor, but offer documented studies to show that the free market system is far more able to help the poor than Pope Francis is willing to give it credit for. And much of that help, the authors would have us and Pope Francis realize, comes from private charitable giving, giving that is enabled rather than stifled by a free and healthy market. As their copious research shows, when “politicians around the world undercut the institutions of capitalism by raising taxes or assaulting private-property rights, they attack the heart of private charity” (102).

Although the six essays I have surveyed thus far might not offer my fellow conservatives, whether evangelical or Catholic, the reassurance that Pope Francis is “one of us,” the final essay by Allan C. Carlson, the John A. Howard Distinguished Fellow for Family and Religious Studies at the International Organization for the Family, does just that. Briefly but trenchantly, Dr. Carlson demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that Pope Francis’ view on the family is both conservative and complementarian.

Pope Francis, Dr. Carlson argues, “rejects a feminism that demands uniformity or negates motherhood” (189). As Pope Francis writes in Amoris laetitia, “womanhood… entails a specific mission in this world, a mission that society needs to protect and preserve for the good of all” (189). But Pope Francis goes further than that in defending the God-given nature of our masculinity and femininity: Pope Francis’ “rejection of equity feminism carries into a strong denunciation of contemporary gender theory, the idea that maleness and femaleness exist on a continuum, with no intrinsic relationship to one’s biological body” (190). In this, of course, Pope Francis shows his strong continuity, not only with a traditional, biblical view of the sexes, but with what I consider to be one of the twenty-five most important books of the last century, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

Pope Francis and the Caring Society is an important and timely book that deserves a wide readership. Along with the contributors, it is my hope and prayer that Pope Francis will read this book and be challenged by it to study more carefully the positive aspects of capitalism and its proven power to help lift millions of people around the world out of a crushing poverty that offers them neither a future nor a hope.

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