Papal Economics Why Pope Francis is Making “Cafeteria Catholics” out of the Catholic Right

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Since its release on November 24, 2013, Pope Francis’ first official document, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), has been the subject of controversy among many self-described “orthodox Catholics,” not for any questionable theological content, but because of several sections that condemn the negative effects of trickle-down economics on the poor.

R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, an influential conservative Catholic magazine, dismissed Pope Francis’ call to end structural poverty as misplaced populism while admiring the pontiff’s call for believers to re-evangelize secular culture. U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) explained away Pope Francis’ distaste for his party’s preferred brand of economics by telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “[The pope] is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” as if the pontiff’s Latin American background is a handicap that needs to be overcome before he can achieve neo-liberal enlightenment. In his usual bombastic manner, talk show host Rush Limbaugh accused Pope Francis of “preaching pure Marxism” and bemoaned the “good old days” when reliable conservatives like John Paul II manned the chair of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and other nonreligious people, accustomed to pro-market Catholics like George Weigel, Michael Novak, and Ross Douthat cheerleading the saving power of the invisible hand, may be puzzled by the pope’s strident denunciations of capitalism, but his comments really shouldn’t be surprising, given that the Catholic Church has always had an ambivalent attitude towards capitalism.

Speculation about the ethical implications of various economic activities has been an integral part of the Catholic tradition, and can be found in the earliest Christian documents. For example, the canonical New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles (circa 60-117 CE), described how the first Christians lived communally to ensure that all members of the fledgling group would have their basic needs met. Acts also contained the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife who were struck dead by God after they pocketed the money from a land sale rather than giving it to the Apostles for the continued support of the community. The Didache (circa 40-60 CE), a guidebook for Christian life and one of the oldest documents produced by the early church, instructed believers to give food and material goods freely to the poor and to take care of any wayfarers who happened to pass through the community, illustrating that the early church considered the proper use of money and possessions as a moral issue. The influential medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that a “community of goods” was the natural state of property because the earth is a “primordial gift” from God to humanity, although he recognized a “natural right” to private property, obtained through work, inheritance, or as a gift.

The Church began to formulate a body of doctrine about the modern social order in the late nineteenth century, known as Catholic social teachings (CST), in response to growing labor unrest in Europe.

The foundational document of CST was the 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, which critiqued the social decay wrought by industrialization and outlined how a just social order governed by Catholic principles should be structured. Rerum Novarum condemned revolutionary communism and reaffirmed the right to private property, but it also chastised unscrupulous employers who “grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies.” Leo denounced the Marxist concept of class warfare, as he believed that workers and employers should exhibit mutual respect towards each other, rather than be locked in a state of perpetual conflict. Concord between the classes could be achieved if workers refrained from rioting, striking, and vandalism, and if employers provided a living wage and gave laborers time off for rest, religious holidays, and the development of family life.

The concepts outlined in Rerum Novarum were further developed by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. Pius lamented the structural poverty that drove workers to join radical social movements to improve their material well-being. He said that employers are morally obliged to pay wages that sustain the material and moral development of the family unit, which cannot flourish within a dysfunctional economic and political system. Pius believed that the growth of large corporations at the expense of small and medium-sized firms was problematic, and worried that the casino-like nature of the international financial market would destroy the viability of local economies. Most interestingly, Pius said that private property must be oriented towards “the common good,” and that the government had a right to redistribute wealth or confiscate private property under extreme conditions, because

when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction.

Despite Pius’ unequivocal rejection of communism, he offered a cautious endorsement of what we would refer to today as social democracy or democratic socialism, noting that Christian reformers and moderate socialists shared the common goal of improving conditions for the working class through gradual change rather than the violent overthrow of the status quo.

The principles outlined in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno would continue to be developed throughout the twentieth century in documents such as Pacem in Terris (Pope John XXIII, 1963); Dignitatis Humanae (Second Vatican Council, 1965); Populorum Progressio (Paul VI, 1967); and Centesimus Annus (John Paul II, 1991). The earlier writings also inspired a number of political movements, ranging from the fascist corporatism of Francisco Franco’s Falangists to the socially conservative and economically left-wing Christian Democratic parties found in Western Europe and Latin America.

A CST-based political movement never took root in the United States because of the pre-existing two-party system, and also given the desire for Catholic immigrants to integrate into mainstream Protestant society rather than mold it according to the dictates of the Church. Instead, the U.S. hierarchy encouraged (read: pressured) the lay faithful to make moral decisions with an “informed conscience” that would abide by Church teachings. Ensuring that parishioners behaved in a doctrinally correct fashion was easier during the days of the Catholic ghetto, when white Catholics voted as a reliable block and the dictates of the hierarchy were considered law, but it is still an ideal that millions of U.S. Catholics believe in, particularly those who consider themselves to be “orthodox.”

The predicament that politically conservative Catholics now find themselves in is that, having made ultramontanism (i.e., the belief that the authority of the pope overrides that of local spiritual and temporal rulers) one of the bedrock characteristics of “orthodox Catholicism,” they can’t reject Pope Francis’ comments about the economy out of hand without appearing to be inconsistent.

Conservative Catholics are still reacting to the freewheeling, experimental attitude that pervaded the Church during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the loss of many of the customs that once characterized Catholic identity, such as the Tridentine Mass, fish on Fridays, and habited nuns teaching at low-cost parochial schools. The negative reaction among U.S. Catholics to Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming of the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control, solidified the importance of submitting to papal authority in the minds of conservative Catholics.

Indeed, for such Catholics, the willingness to follow Humane Vitae is a litmus test for separating the “cafeteria Catholics,” who selectively choose which Church teachings to abide by and which to ignore, from “orthodox Catholics” who are committed to the faith and the defense of the “Holy Father.” If orthodoxy was simply a matter of upholding a particular sexual ethic, then conservatives would be justified in claiming the mantle of orthodox Catholicism. However, the Catholic Church is designed to be a “total institution,” with a teaching authority that provides instruction on almost every aspect of life, from the proper structuring of the political order to the best way to use the Internet. How can these same “orthodox Catholics,” who are perfectly happy to let the minutiae of their local parishes or sex lives be micromanaged by faceless celibate civil servants in Rome suddenly take offense when these same bureaucrats demand the same level of authority over how they spend their money or the extent to which they should be taxed?

Catholic conservatives distressed by Evangelii Gaudium should ask themselves why they expected the Vatican to rubber stamp the GOP platform in the first place. Most of the clergy who work in Vatican City are either from Europe, where some flavor of social democrat is the default economic position, or from the developing world, where they know first-hand that the fruits of capitalism are not distributed equally.

The works of Pope Francis’ immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, contained similar critiques of unrestrained capitalism and consumerism, and both opposed the death penalty and the Iraq War, but such statements were largely ignored by both the mainstream and conservative media, because both were pigeon-holed as members of the invisible Republican Party, along with Margaret Thatcher. However, the laissez-faire economics that is so popular within the ranks of the Republican Party is considered to be a fringe ideology almost everywhere else in the world; when put in a global context, it is Pope Francis’ views that are mainstream, while those of U.S. conservatives are strange.

What this “Pope Francis versus the free market” panic illustrates is that cafeteria Catholicism affects individuals from all across the political spectrum. Is this a problem? Only for those who insist they are “completely orthodox,” despite systematically ignoring CST. What so-called conservative orthodox Catholics fail to understand is that the theological teachings of the Church are supposed to naturally manifest themselves in society via CST, rather than be a separate body of privately held ideas that have no relation to the political and socio-economic dimensions of human existence, except on carnal matters and family planning. This is why the Church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries instructed members to form specifically Catholic labor unions and political parties, send their children to parochial schools, and associate in Catholic fraternal organizations, so all aspects of a Catholic’s life would be formed and influenced by Church teachings, even in the midst of societies that were rapidly secularizing and becoming pluralistic.

The twenty-first century Church’s inability to have the same kind of cultural and political monopoly on its members that it enjoyed in previous centuries is precisely why Pope Francis wrote Evangelii Gaudium, which can be interpreted as a call to wage a kind of reconquista of the heart, rather than of the apparatuses of the state.

If U.S. Catholics are all picking and choosing from the cafeteria, so to speak, whether it’s sexuality on the left or economics on the right, it may be worth asking whether it’s even possible to be an orthodox Catholic—in the twenty-first century United States or in any other place or time. Much of the dismay from the right over Evangelii Gaudium stems from the fact that U.S. Catholicism has a distinctly Protestant flavor, with an emphasis on thrift, entrepreneurship, evangelizing, Biblical literacy, and patriotism that is unusual when compared with traditionally Catholic countries in Latin America and Europe. This kind of Catholic-Protestant syncretism is really no more surprising than the combination of traditional African and indigenous religious practices with Catholicism that characterizes many religious practices in Latin America, other than the fact that those in the latter group tend to be more honest about the nature of their eclectic beliefs.

The fact that most of what passed for religion among the masses in the pre-modern West was magic and superstition, sprinkled with a few simple Bible stories, suggests that the average peasant or craftsman living during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or even the nineteenth century would hardly be an exemplar of “orthodoxy” any more than the modern Catholic who augments her weekly mass attendance with Zen meditation or a belief in reincarnation. Even the works of Thomas Aquinas, whose stature is so great in the Church that he is referred to as “the Philosopher,” had his works banned for more than fifty years because his opponents believed that it was heretical to combine Christian theology with Aristotelianism.

In short, there has never been a time in history when all Catholics, whether lay or cleric, were in complete lockstep with the official ideology of the Church. If conservative “orthodox” Catholics could realize that we are all heretics in some way, it would be a great leap forward in terms of intellectual honesty and in terms of declaring a much needed culture war detente.