Church & Economics

Much has been said about Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel).  This is an exhortation, an encouragement to the Roman Catholic Church, but not a definitive statement of doctrine (at least as far as I can tell).  There have been quite a few apostolic exhortations over the years on a variety of topics.  I tried linking to a copy of Evangelii Gaudium hosted by the Vatican but GoDaddy doesn’t think it’s a real URL.  Google Evangelii Gaudium and you’ll find a copy very quickly.

Most of the concern has to do with Pope Francis’ rather blunt criticism of free markets and capitalism, blaming them for all manner of social and ethical ills (sections 52-60 of the exhortation, specifically).  A colleague of mine who recently started a blog has a post on this you can read here as well.  The Pope takes free markets and marketplace competition to task for a variety of issues including the exclusion of many from participation in society (53-54), creating an idolatry of money (55-56), allowing industry and big business to dictate the terms of the game to states, in the process bypassing ethical norms (57-58), and spawning violence by the disenfranchised (59-60).
That’s a pretty hefty salvo against what most Americans are taught to view as the pinnacle of human economic development (capitalism).  Pope Francis views such economics – as well as the information age – as new developments creating an entirely new set of economic conditions that are primarily unpleasant and dehumanizing to most of the world’s population.
What do you say to such a critique?  Can you tell Pope Francis that he’s wrong, that capitalism and free markets don’t contribute to each of these things?  I can’t.  Yes, not everyone participates freely in open market societies and therefore not everyone reaps the advantages.  Yes, money is an idol in this age.  Yes, when business is deemed “too big to fail” then the traditional restraints against industry abuse are going to be broken or ignored.  Yes, this chain of events can and does lead to violence by those who see no hope.  Guilty on all counts as charged.
However, Pope Francis seems to have a rather myopic view of these issues as well.  Are these issues specific to free markets?  No, I don’t think so.  Are any of these issues new developments specifically generated by free markets?  With the possible exception of businesses so large that they slip the bonds of state restraints, no.  And certainly business and the state have been in bed together for a long time, predating (and anticipating) the free market systems which developed at the end of the 18th century.  Over 100 years earlier, England’s monarchy was enmeshed in the business of exploration and subsequent trade with newly developed lands, authorizing private companies in this business in exchange for a healthy payment.  
The concentration of power in the hands of a few is not a new thing.  It is not a capitalist thing.  It is a human thing.  The economics of oppression have been around for a long time – as long as sinful people have been around.  Exodus opens with the economic oppression of God’s people by a decidedly non-free market system – slavery under the monarchy of a Pharaoh in Egypt.  
Pope Francis insists that claims that free markets are actually the best of all possible economic systems in terms of potential empowerment and enrichment of as many people as possible have “never been confirmed by the facts” (section 54).  Can he name a system that has, however?  
The economic and political system of the Pharaohs obviously wasn’t accomplishing this.  Was the Roman system of Caesars any better?  What about the monarchial states of Europe hundreds of years ago?  Were they better at ensuring fairness, equity, and protection of the marginalized?  How about the socialist states of Europe today?  Many are near-collapse because of the ambitious efforts started so recently  to provide equality for everyone.  What about the riots in France in recent years by immigrants who feel marginalized by the socialist economy there?  
Are these systems any better at making sure that everyone is treated justly and ethically and with appropriate respect for human dignity?  No.  Why not?  Because they are made up of people.  People are mangled and broken and sinful.  Even the best-intentioned and best-equipped people have their faults, and the truth is that the best-intentioned and best-equipped people are rarely in control for very long (if ever).  Human beings are sinful, therefore all human institutions (the Church included) are going to be sinful.
Pope Francis is ultimately critiquing the State for not living up to the Biblical standards that no State on earth has attempted or even desired to uphold.  He neglects the fact that capitalism as practiced in the United States is not “unfettered”, that we have never practiced unadulterated capitalism, but have always attempted to allow the maximum market freedoms while protecting people from exploitation.  Is this a perfect attempt?  Hardly.  But it is an effort, and I’d argue it’s an effort that is no more flawed than the failed and failing attempts to simply legislate economic equality without any basis for sustaining such equality.  
He brings up some good points, however.  Does it make sense that we throw food away rather than giving it to those who are starving to death in our own communities (section 53)?  No, not at all.  Is it wrong that at times it is hard for us to have pity for the poor (section 54), suspecting them always of somehow faking it or otherwise not deserving our mercy?  No, not at all.  It is the Church’s duty to warn when we are straying into dangerous directions both communally and personally, and Pope Francis is executing his duty in this respect, for which he is to be respected.
At the same time, we have to recognize that his operating assumption is that the State exists to ensure that all people are cared for properly.  Socialism is assumed in this exhortation.  The State must do these things.  And here I disagree with the Holy Father.  The State must not be enjoined to do these things, because these things are the duty of Christians.  
The secular State takes over the duties of caring for people ultimately at a cost to the Church of Christ.  It does this in two ways – it actively displaces the Church from her traditional privilege of ministering to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and it creates a new environment where nobody (including Christians) expects the Church to do these things.  
This does not mean that the State should ignore the welfare of it’s citizens (or the global community).  What it means is the State ought to recognize the inherent difficulties of a centralized system for human care, and the benefit of distributed, localized systems.  It needs to recognize that it is to the benefit of the State and everyone associated with the State, as well as to the individual in question, for individuals to be empowered to be productive, and for incentives to abuse of a system to be minimized
and eliminated whenever possible.  It ought to see in the Church an ally, rather than a competitor or a threat.
Is this idealistic?  Of course it is.  Is it impractical?  Every bit as much as creating any other allegedly more-perfect economic or political system.  Why?
Because the Church is a threat.  Christianity is a threat.  The Church points to a coming reality, a coming upheaval.  It points to a time when the powers that be are brought to naught.  A time when all powers and authorities will be deposed, whether good or bad, effective or ineffective, sympathetic or unsympathetic.  It points to a time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Romans 14:11, quoting Isaiah 45:23).  The Church is not a threat in advocating rebellion towards this end, because it is not an event that humanity or any subset of humanity is in control of.  But the Church is a threat so long as it continues it’s duty to proclaim that such a day is coming, and to remind all principalities and authorities that they rule by the grace of this one, true Lord.  
It is against this day that human institutions are set.  Economic.  Political.  Social.  You name it.  So go ahead and critique free-market systems.  But then continue on to critique Marxist systems.  Critique democracy, but then critique monarchialism and socialism.  Be even-handed and honest that these problems have always existed and will exist until that day when our true Lord returns.  Be honest that no human institution will ever carry out the duty to love neighbor fully and correctly because no human is fully or correctly able to love God.  This includes the Church.
And then call The Church back to what it should be about – proclaiming the Gospel and loving the people of God.  Picking up the pieces of human lives that every institution will leave strewn about in it’s wake and piecing them together in the love of Christ.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, preaching good news to the imprisoned.  We can sit around and lament the State’s failure to do these things properly, but we’re wasting our breath.  It wouldn’t be part of the Church’s work to do these things if they could be done perfectly.
Christians walk a peculiar line.  On the one hand we insist that the effects of sinfulness both personally and communally will never be solved.  There will always be hunger, sickness, privation, and suffering.  On the other hand we are to be actively involved in alleviating these things when and how we can – both personally and communally.  It is never just one or the other.  And we are never given the option of delegating this task to the State or any other institution.  They remain first and foremost personal directives to the individual Christian, and secondly the character of Christian community.  If and when the State aids in these processes, that’s a good thing, though we should not be surprised by ulterior motives, inefficiencies, and other issues that many Christian organizations struggle with as well.  
So kudos to Pope Francis for calling a spade a spade.  But let’s do call all the spades, spades, and not just certain spades.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s