(This post has been sitting around almost finished for a week or two; time to go ahead and get it out of the way.)
It's unfortunate that the political aspects of Evangelii Gaudium have so overshadowed its focus on evangelization. But since they have, I find myself wanting to respond further to it and to note some other commentary that I thought worthwhile.
Something in this response by a Catholic investment banker really caught my eye. Don't be too put off by the headline; the piece itself is not as negative and combative as it suggests:
My gripe with the pope? By inserting a phrase like “trickle-down economics” in his powerful message, he let us all off the hook too easily. That simplistic caricature absolved us from thinking afresh and allowed everyone to retreat into their Republican or Democratic ideological foxholes, parrot empty catchphrases about the economy, indulge the same polarized debates that that have divided Catholics (and the rest of us) for decades, and then call it day without ever confronting the real lives of the real subjects of the pope’s comments.
This is very much like a part of my own reaction. It's not that I think Francis spoke too harshly of “capitalism”--a word which does not appear in the document and always means different things to different people, so that one can never discuss it without tedious debate over what exactly it means—or whatever you want to call the economic system. It's that I think he spoke too vaguely, too imprecisely, and in a way that doesn't challenge the individual conscience. If “the system” is the problem, no one in particular is really at fault and no one in particular is obliged to do anything in particular about it, except perhaps to add a bit more noise to the political din.
This passage in particular bothered me:
As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.
Any problems? At all? What is one supposed to do in response to this? All right, I reject the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation. Now, what precisely shall I attack? Shall I write an indignant blog post? Run for president? “Speak out for justice,” a phrase rendered tiresome by its employment in hundreds of meretricious causes? Will any of those things help anyone, or change the situation?
By approaching the problem at the level of economic theory, but in an imprecise and fragmentary way, the pope opened the way for it to remain in the realm of debate, as has in fact happened. The exhortation is rendered ineffectual, or anyway of less effect, because it has no particular application to anyone in particular.
To be fair, the pope does say this:
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.
And it's not the pope's fault that it hasn't gotten the attention that some of the condemnations of the system have. Still, what the investment banker describes is what seems, for the most part, to have happened. Catholics on the political left feel entitled to pummel those on the right somewhat harder, and those on the right feel defensive, but that debate has not changed significantly. Instead of a call to repentance and conversion, we heard a call to argument and finger-pointing.
Pro-market Catholics can say, with justification, that the ideas the pope condemns are not the ideas they hold. We Americans tend to assume he's talking about our situation. But the pope's description of a pure libertarian capitalism is not a view which is held by many American Catholic thinkers. The debate among Catholics in this country is not between proponents of total state control of the economy and proponents of a system entirely off-limits to state control, between Marx and Rand. It's a debate about the appropriate amount of state control over an economy which is fundamentally market-based. (Not that there aren't pure Marxists and pure Randians, but they aren't the pope's audience.)
I would like to see the pope address these questions in a way that leaves no room for debate on certain core questions. I wouldn't mind seeing a few anathemas. Like this, maybe:
If anyone should say that the goods of this world are not meant for the maintenance of all, and that those who have a greater share of these goods, even if obtained by their own industry, do not sin when they refuse to share their wealth with those who have little or nothing, let him be anathema.
Or, to borrow a phrase from EG itself:
If anyone should “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control” (EG 56) of the economy, let him be anathema.
I could go on with a number of these. I would like to see the Magisterium state these things in no uncertain terms, for our time, setting clear boundaries for the ideas and principles involved. Then let the rest of us, agreed on the destination, argue about how to get there, and give our own views a searching look in light of these principles.
And the pope, or perhaps more fittingly the bishops, individually or together, could bring the admonitions home by naming specific situations. No Catholic businessman, for instance, should feel at ease in his conscience if he makes enough money in a single year to support a family in comfort for twenty years while failing to pay his employees enough to live on.
Nor should any of us feel exempted. Ultimately the reason so many American jobs have gone abroad or to illegal immigrants at home is that the people at large did not want to pay the higher prices that would be required if these jobs were done by Americans for an American living wage. All of us can consider such things in our daily life.
I know such examples barely touch on the complexity of the problems. And I'm talking only about the American situation. Both liberals and conservatives here have reacted as if Francis were talking mainly to them, but that is surely not the case. The diversity and complexity of the problems across the world make sweeping attacks on “the system” even more vague, diffuse, and difficult to apply. Social justice is only the sum of millions of personal acts. “Structures of sin” (not a phrase used by Francis) do exist, but they are not sinners; they were created by sinners and can only be changed by sinners mending their ways. Grand schemes for universal reform may or may not be worth pursuing, but that pursuit can never take the place of doing the good available to us right here and right now. There is not a single one of us who does not have some opportunity to ease the suffering of someone—some one single person or family—who is struggling. The response to Evangelii Gaudium has been more ideological than practical. Maybe that's more the fault of the political atmosphere than of the document itself, but it does seem to me that the document leaves itself open to it.
A basic point of contention between those who emphasize the free market and those who emphasize the role of the state is the connection between economics and ethics. Many of the former insist on economic laws which are to some degree independent of ethics; many of the latter act as if ethical directives need take little or no account of economic realities. Bringing the kind of clarity to the abstractions that is missing from Evangelii Gaudium is this concise appraisal of the connection:
A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.
Guess who: Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, in 1985. The quote is from several passages gathered at Ethika Politika, and I commend to you the whole article. It will renew your appreciation for the remarkable sharpness and clarity of Benedict/Ratzinger's thinking.
A Conservative Response
In one of the better commentaries from a conservative, Ross Douthat urges the right to worry less about defending its views in the abstract and more about judging those views in light of the unquestionable rightness of Francis's focus on the situation of those left behind by prosperity. As I understand it, “trickle-down” is a pejorative not accepted by economists on the right as an accurate description of their views. A better image might be “A rising tide lifts all boats.” But just as it is beyond question that commerce and industrialism have made much of the world better off materially than was dreamt of 300 years ago, it is beyond question that there were always boats that were not lifted, and even overturned and sunk by bigger ones. And there seem to be more, not fewer, of them now than there were 30 years ago. Defenders of markets etc. should give up trying to ignore this or explain it away, accept that it's a real problem, and think about how to ameliorate it. Douthat closes:
Now the challenge for conservative Catholics is...to spend the Francis era not in opposition but seeking integration—meaning an economic vision that remains conservative, but in the details reminds the world that our Catholic faith comes first.
Read the whole column.