A critique of American materialism is extraordinarily challenging, as it is cloaked in a heresy that is subtle, smooth, and sweet. The problem is that the Pope is not really up to such a challenging challenge…

Pope Francis and the Caring Society edited by Robert M. Whaples (256 pages, Independent Institute, 2017)

It is perhaps appropriate that I write a review of Pope Francis and the Caring Society on Fat Tuesday since one of Pope Francis’ bottom-line critiques of our Western culture is that we are obese. Of course, he doesn’t say so in such a crass way, but his criticism of consumerism is simple: “Our unrestrained gluttony and greed destroy lives, destroy the environment, exploit the poor and erect idols of pleasure and power that erode our relationship with our Maker.”

If Pope St John Paul II was the prophet who stood up to the crimes of communism, perhaps Pope Francis is the prophet to stand up to the crimes of capitalism. Unrestrained capitalism is, like communism, a materialistic ideology. This was highlighted in another book I’m reading, Dorothy Day’s classic, House of Hospitality. She reports a Frank Sheed speech in which he pointed out, “The Christians in Russia… say ‘Do not try to save us from the Bolsheviks. They are materialists with material aims, ignoring and denying God and they say so. But the Western Christians are also materialists with material aims denying God—but they don’t say so. Leave us alone and perhaps a new Christianity will arise in Russia.’”

A third book on the side table is Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, which is, at heart, a commentary of the seduction of Christianity by American materialism. Mr. Douthat brilliantly connects the dots and recognizes that the neo-Gnosticism of the New Age optimists fits very neatly with the bright and shiny appeal of the prosperity preachers. Both market a spirituality without religion that caters to the self-indulgence and smooth materialism that most Americans take for granted as part of their God-given pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The result is an entertainment, materialistic religion that has more to do with Disneyland than the Promised Land.

A critique of American materialism is good, and a harsh critique is necessary because we are unable to hear those who do not shout. But a critique of American materialism is extraordinarily difficult. It was clear that communist materialism was atheistic, so the enemy was obvious. As Mr. Douthat points out, American materialism is cloaked in a heresy that is subtle, smooth, and sweet—making Sunday just as tempting as an ice cream sundae.

How to attack such a marshmallow monster? Pope Francis has tried. In his encyclical Laudato Si he has challenged us to reconsider our ways. Looking at the environmental impact and the eternal challenge of poverty, he has also challenged an economic order that he holds responsible. The problem is that the Pope is not really up to such a challenging challenge.

The problem of American-style global capitalism is much more complex and subtle than the problem of totalitarian communism. The global and national interrelationships are complex. The intricacies of the global market and the science of economics cannot be countered with sophomoric socialistic bromides and broad sweeping generalizations. Simply saying, “Rich people should give more money to poor people” is too simplistic in a complex economic reality. The poor deserve intensive, long-term solutions.

Pope Francis and the Caring Society is a collection of essays edited by Robert M. Whaples—a research fellow at the Independent Institute and a professor of economics at Wake Forest University. He introduces the volume with a good essay outlining the main themes of the pope’s thought and he has assembled a stellar cast of experts to consider Pope Francis’ thought in a spirit of dialogue and comment.

Andrew Yuengert explains Pope Francis’ teaching in the light of historic Catholic social doctrine, focussing on the development of that doctrine under Pope John Paul and Benedict XVI. He shows how Pope Francis’ critique of capitalistic materialism is not divorced from his predecessors, but is more explicit and specific. Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute does a great job of explaining the Argentinian background to the Pope’s “theology of the people” while Lawrence J. McQuillian and Hayeon Carol Park give the facts about capitalism and private charitable giving. Other essays elucidate the environmental issues, discuss the importance of the family and property rights to the overall big economic picture.

While this book obviously comes at the problem from a conservative viewpoint, it does so with admirable balance, expertise, and reasonable argument. While the authors defend capitalism, they also understand the system’s weaknesses and they write with heart—genuinely sharing the pope’s concerns if they do not share all his proposed solutions.

As a non-expert, I find some of the discussion to be too technical and in-depth, but most of the essays are written in a clear style—expert but accessible. While some of the criticisms of Pope Francis are astringent, all are argued with a respectful tone by experts who genuinely wish to contribute constructive comments to the ongoing debate.

Pope Francis and the Caring Society raises two questions in my mind which are truly disturbing. Given that American materialism does need a profound, reasonable, and sensible critique, it is a great shame that the only critique has come from a pope who, quite simply, doesn’t have the philosophical, global, and historical muscle to provide it. Samuel Gregg shows how Pope Francis’ limited experience on the world stage narrows his vision, and the other essayists reveal how Francis’ lack of economic and scientific expertise hampers his attempts to make an invincible argument. Given the difficulty of the game, the ineptitude of the gladiator is disappointing.

Therefore, the second question is even more pressing. For a document like Laudato Si a pope must rely on a range of experts to advise him. Were none of the expert contributors to this book (not to mention the distinguished academics who piled up ten pages of long recommendations at the front of the book) available to serve on the pope’s team? We don’t know who the pope’s advisors were, but if he is writing on global economics and environmentalism, it would seem that his board of advisors was remarkably one-sided.

The pope is the only religious leader who has a global platform. Did he have advisors from around the world and from both sides of the debate to direct his thinking so that he might issue a teaching that was balanced, intelligent, reasonable, and constructive? Unfortunately, Laudato Si sometimes reads more like a semi-socialistic college rant rather than a balanced, wise, and erudite teaching guided by the Holy Spirit. While one appreciates the pope’s concern for the environment and his passion for the poor, Pope Francis and the Caring Society shows that “he could have done better.”

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