December 7, 2013

COMMENTARY: Pope’s letter not about economics, but a call to spread the Gospel

M.D. Harmon

How much attention should the average American pay when the head of the Roman Catholic Church offers his views about economic issues?

Here’s another question: Why have so many media sources commenting about Pope Francis’ new “exhortation,” titled “The Joy of the Gospel,” chosen to focus tightly on his criticisms of capitalism while downplaying or ignoring what he has said, there and elsewhere, about abortion, marriage and evangelism?

Consider one of The Washington Post’s most liberal columnists, Eugene Robinson, who approvingly cited Francis’ statement that, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

“This opinion,” the pontiff continued, “which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

That was music to Robinson’s ears: “That passage is not from some Occupy Wall Street manifesto. It ... is a powerful reminder that, however tiresome the political trench warfare in Washington may be, we have a duty to fight on.”

On some parts of the right, however, great exception was taken: Investor’s Business Daily said in an editorial, “It seems the official position of Pope Francis is that the free market is a wicked enemy that must be restrained. With all due respect, he’s mistaken. The free market has been a heavenly blessing.”

The paper continued, “Actually, no economic system has brought more prosperity to more people than free-market capitalism. Neither socialism nor communism has increased prosperity, and are themselves ruled by tyrants. Both have certainly brought more equality, which Francis believes is important. But it’s an equality of misery. We wonder if the pope prefers a dictatorship or oligarchy to the free market.”

On questions of competing economic systems, my sympathies are all with the latter source, but it occurred to me that there may be more involved here than how best to distribute scarce material resources in society.

So, faced with dueling “where-you-stand-depends-on-where-you-sit” arguments, I read the whole 51,000-word document. Not being a Roman Catholic, I first had to figure out this relevant fact: A papal “exhortation” is a pastoral letter, giving spiritual advice, rather than an “encyclical,” which lays out doctrinal teachings.

Obviously, I’m not going to digest it all here, but a few points are worth mentioning.

First, this is not a letter about economics. You’d think from the comments quoted above that the pope was trying to supplant either Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes, but he isn’t.

Instead, he primarily wrote to help his church proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that, from his perspective (and that of many other Christians) is in sore need of a Savior.

So when he titled his exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” that’s just what he meant, even if few in the media bothered to mention it.

And if he was tough on capitalism (which rarely is as unrestrained as he depicted it), he was equally hard on the burgeoning secular state:

“The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change.”

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