Pope Francis on Economics: Homini Gaudium
Unlike Leo XIII and Pius XI, Francis’ analysis is not rooted in our obligations in justice (although he places a few off hand allusions to justice). The overwhelming thrust of his argument is emotional.
Homini Gaudium: A Lot of Joy for Man
but not a Lot of Justice for God
Pope Francis on Economics
By Brian McCall, JD
The recent exhortation of Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium is a long document that touches on a wide vista of issues. It would be impossible to analyze or consider a document of this breadth in its entirety in one article. Among the many differing reactions to the document in the US some of the most vociferous and outspoken opposition has been to the economic matters treated in the exhortation. We will consider therefore the issues of economics treated by the Holy Father.
As with the rest of the exhortation, the treatment of economics is a mixed bag. There are some statements which are in harmony with traditional Catholic doctrine on economic and social matters. Yet, the good done by these positive statements is seriously undermined by the surrounding text. In many cases the Holy Father states correct conclusions or observations but he destroys this good by eliminating the solid doctrinal foundations upon which these conclusions rest. In the end although Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, two towering figures in the articulation of the Church’s doctrine on these matters, would stand in continuity with some statements, they would likely balk in disbelief at the philosophy, theology and overall argumentation employed by the Holy Father.
We will begin, as we ought when considering the words of the pope, with the good. Pope Francis reiterates the Catholic doctrine that economic matters are not ruled by independent, self-operative mechanical rules which absolve human beings of moral responsibility for the consequences of economic action. Economic activity is a product of human action. All human action, due to our rational and volitional nature, is moral action. The Church has always condemned the proposition that the economy is some hermeneutically sealed environment which is self-operative.
In short, the Church rejects the argument of the “invisible hand” that operates to produce the best of all possible worlds independently of human choice. Pope Francis asserts that the assumption “that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world” is an “opinion “which has never been confirmed by the facts.” Economic Liberals have for years erected a false idol of omnipotent beneficence, the invisible hand, In place of the real invisible hand, the Providence of Almighty God. Whenever society rejects the true God, the natural religious instinct seeks another object towards which it must be directed. The pope rightly rebukes our godless society when he says: “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money. . . .“
Paraphrasing what Aristotle called the vice of ploenexia, Francis notes that “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.” Since the first days of the Church, Catholic doctrine has held that since money is artificial it has no natural limit and thus the desire for the accumulation of money must be controlled. These ancient words of wisdom coming both from ancient philosophy and Christian morality are scorned by the Economic Liberals who hold that there should be no constraint on ploenexia or acquisitiveness for money. Since the time of Aristotle until the advent of Liberalism, Western philosophy recognized that Economics was a subordinate discipline to Ethics. Since economics involves this desire for acquisition which knows no natural limit of its own it must be limited by Ethics.
The pagan understanding of natural Ethics was expanded by Catholic doctrine to include the Divine Law. In one passage with its clear sighted condemnation of Economic Liberalism’s rejection of all constraints, Francis speaks squarely from within the Tradition running from the Fathers of the Church to the great popes of the turn of the Twentieth century who taught this core Catholic principle. “Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person.
In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since He calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.’” Likewise Leo XIII and Pius XI condemned unconstrained greed of unrestrained competition which offended justice.
As did his predecessors, Francis correctly identifies the ultimate outcome of a market left to its own devices and directed only by ploenexia—a new form of tyranny. “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”
Unfortunately it is at this point that Francis departs from the trodden path of his predecessors. He on one hand and Leo XIII and Pius XI on the other, offer very different explanations for these strongly worded condemnations of modern Economic Liberalism. The two main points of departure are on the foundation stones of justice and the Social Reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The pre-Counciliar popes all traced the economic evils they condemned to violations of the virtue of justice. They maintained the ancient understanding of justice as comprising three types: commutative justice, distributive justice and legal justice. The system of economics advocated by Economic Liberals was condemned not on the basis of emotion or sentiment but because in many critical respects it produced violations of all three forms of justice.
First, an unregulated market produced exchange transactions which violated commutative justice. Catholic doctrine on the Just Price (and Wage) has always taught that it is a sin to require someone to pay more or less than something is worth. Paying a laborer less than a just wage for the work done is a violation of justice and the seventh commandment.
In addition the distribution of goods common to a community must be accomplished according to a due proportion. The popes were always careful to note that due proportion does not mean equal share. They condemned communism and socialism for their requirement of equality of wealth and income. The principle of distributive justice holds that common goods, i.e., goods produced in common (as opposed to private goods), must be distributed proportionately not equally.
Finally, the popes always warned that our private actions have consequences for the societies in which we live. Legal justice (what Pius XI called social justice) is the virtue whereby we orient our private economic activity to the common good of society. We cannot make private economic decisions without concern for the larger social ramifications. On this basis, Pius XI explained that employers were obligated to pay full time employees who were fathers of families a wage sufficient to support a family. Failing to do so harms the common good of society by leading to families which cannot meet the basic needs of life a deprivation which produces many societal ills.
Although granting that there are many factors which affect the calculation of a family wage and leaving the application of the principle to those involved in the decision, Pius XI reminded all of us that we cannot simply ignore the social harms caused by private economic decisions. Francis on the other hand refers to none of these traditional kinds of justice and seems to conceive of justice only as “a case of inequality.” Such a conflation of justice with mere inequality of wealth is one of the errors of communism identified by the pre-Counciliar popes.
Unlike Leo XIII and Pius XI, Francis’ analysis is not rooted in our obligations in justice (although he places a few off hand allusions to justice). The overwhelming thrust of his argument is emotional. Rather than requiring all to fulfill their duties in justice he exhorts those in business to have a sentimental emotional reaction to the plight of the poor. This leads him to plea for mercy and generosity, which are good things to seek, but to neglect claims of justice.
The problem with appeals predominately to mercy and generosity is that such terms suggest that action is optional or discretionary and not required by the moral law. Rather than talking about our sins against justice Francis decries our “being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain” Whereas the prior popes explained the inherent limits on the use of private property as a principle of Natural Law, for Francis this is only a “spontaneous reaction”
Essentially Francis conceives of Catholic social doctrine as an emotional “option for the poor” to avoid inequality. The ultimate source of this reduction of traditional doctrine lies in the conflation of the supernatural with the natural initiated by the “new theology” of Henri de Lubac. This theologian accused of Modernism before the Council but rehabilitated by John XXIII to become a Council expert, rejected the Thomistic distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Although for St. Thomas grace builds on nature, nature is not grace and our life here is only our natural end. Our ultimate end is greater and distinct. Our pursuit of our natural end must be in light of and oriented toward our ultimate supernatural end. This blurring of the distinction results in a theology and philosophy centered on man and his natural well-being, which has now been elevated to a supernatural status rather than centered on God.
At one point it seems as if Francis is about to draw our attention from the temporal to the supernatural, which perspective should guide our understanding of the natural. He says: “Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people but . . .” Traditionally we would expect the clause following the “but” to lift our sights to the supernatural end of Man. Rather, Francis continues: “but also their general temporal welfare and prosperity.” Francis clearly declares his allegiance to the Man centered philosophy inaugurated by Vatican II which contracts the Church’s concern from the supernatural to the natural by divinizing the natural. “I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.” To such a focus on the concerns of Man, Leo XIII responded: “The world has heard enough of the so-called "rights of man." Let it hear something of the rights of God.”
This new cult of Man that elevates nature above the supernatural spawned the false optimism of Vatican II that the “cult of Man” could build a veritable paradise on earth without building on the foundation of the Reign of Christ the King. Natural Man, for whom original sin is of no importance, can achieve peace and prosperity without accepting the dominion of Christ and his laws. In contrast, Pius XI made clear that true peace was only possible in the Kingdom of Christ.
Likewise Francis reduces “the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful” to striving “that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel.“ Traditionally the Church proclaimed that the essential vocation of the laity was to save their souls by obeying God’s commandments in the way they lived out their temporal existence and only secondarily transformed the world through this orientation to their ultimate end.
Francis focuses not on sins of injustice that contravenes the Natural and Divine law but on the idol of the “cult of man” which is the “dignity of the human person.” The economic commentary of the exhortation is filled with references to this nebulous concept. Economic vice is rightly identified but wrongly labeled as destroying human dignity.
Ultimately Francis refuses to make use of the divine authority inextricably connected to his sacred office. He pleads for emotional empathy rather than calling wayward sheep back to the Natural and Divine Law. It is true that he deplores the attempt to relegate religion to the hidden private sphere: “no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions,” but he merely requests a “right to offer an opinion on events affecting society” Contrast this tepid request to the confidence of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum when he said: “We approach this subject [economic class warfare] with confidence and surely by our right.” Pius XI echoed this statement more strongly in Quadragesimo Anno when he proclaimed “It is our right and our duty authoritatively to deal with social and economic problems,” later asserting that these issues “must be brought under our supreme jurisdiction.”
Yet, after more than a half century of humiliating the Mystical Body of Christ and the Vicar of Christ with apologies and groveling to win the favor of the world, this clear call to respect the authority of God speaking through his Church is reduced to the following : “Furthermore, neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems. Here I can repeat the insightful observation of Pope Paul VI: ‘In the face of such widely varying situations, it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. This is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country’.”
No, Holy Father it is not difficult to do so. Simply quote Leo XIII and Pius XI who merely repeated the perennial doctrine of the Natural and Divine law which cannot be mocked without dire consequences, temporal and eternal, rather than quoting Paul VI. Incidentally in the entire document running over two hundred pages there is not a single footnote citation to the teaching of these great pre-Councilliar popes. Perhaps Francis cannot offer any authoritative doctrine and only express a mere opinion because he has abandoned the Traditional doctrine founded on the Social Reign of Christ the King.
Thus, overall what can be said about Francis’ economic teaching in the exhortation? It does more harm than good. Although he does accurately diagnose some of the dire consequences of the dying system of Economic Liberalism and he tentatively asks for God and ethics to be allowed to express their “opinion” he forfeits the opportunity to really teach the financially unstable modern world. He refuses to teach authoritatively. He conflates the natural and the supernatural giving the impression that the temporal sphere, human dignity, and inequality are all that matter. He refuses to call the world to build a new economic order that accepts the Kingship of Christ and instead merely asks for people to have spontaneous emotional reactions to inequality.
The world’s economic ills are too deep for such a weak remedy. We have suffered too long under the false doctrine of Economic Liberalism. We must pray that a Holy Father, if not this one, will one day take up the divine authority of his office to recall the world to the demands of God and call the world to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and then all these shall be added unto us.
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