Evangelii Gaudium: Second Impressions


There are not enough gold and red pens in the world for George Weigel to parse the clamant social justice sections out of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation released yesterday. Yesterday, we began looking at this text. If you did not read what I wrote there, please do so before continuing because today, as we look at part of the document’s treatment of social doctrine, it is vital to keep in mind that the pope’s treatment of social justice is placed within the context of evangelization: The Pope is calling the Church to be a missionary Church, an evangelizing Church, and the privileged path of fidelity to the Gospel is service to the poor.


The second paragraph of the document sets this frame:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

Here you get the frame for what he later makes clear: Our service to the poor is about creating a “culture of encounter,” about forming our Catholic conscience in a deeper way than simply knowing right from wrong, but instead forming our fundamental stance, what Levinas called “the moral challenge of the face of another,” and that it is only if we so form our consciences to welcome the poor and the marginalized, to put their interests above our own, only then can we be sure of meeting Christ in this world, being true to His sacramental presence in the Eucharist, and nurturing the hope to live with Him for all eternity. And, the danger to the pope’s vision, as he states clearly and throughout the text, is our modern consumer culture. This understanding precedes and permeates all he subsequently says about the social doctrine of the Church.

Pope Francis actually has two sections that deal with social doctrine. The first is in Chapter 2, “Amid the Crisis in Communal Commitment,” and the second is in Chapter 4, “The Social Dimension of Evangelization.” Today we will only have time to treat the first section but both sections, and indeed the entire document, must be seen through the lens the pope provides, a “pastoral perspective.” I call attention to this because in recent years, certain Catholic leaders have derided pastoral theology and come to understand the role of ecclesial leadership as one shaped by moral theology, not pastoral theology. A very smart bishop recently made this point to me and it rang profoundly true: One of the keys to understanding Pope Francis is that he, properly, understands moral theology as a subset of pastoral theology, not the other way round.

I bring attention to this point, too, because you can already see how some Catholics, for whom the pope’s words are difficult to accept, are reacting. This article in Forbes makes the case that the pope, a good and holy man, really has no idea what he is talking about, that he does not really understand complex market economics, that his heart may be in the right place but, poor fellow, he lacks the intelligence of his predecessors. I suppose this is better than suggesting he is an anti-pope, but, to be clear, the pope understands perfectly. What his neo-con and libertarian critics fail to grasp is that the pope’s understanding has been profoundly shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not by the Gospel according to Hayek and von Mises, and that as a pastor from the Global South, there is nothing abstract about the sufferings of the poor wrought by globalization. Also, it must be said, the pope does not claim to be an economist. He is a pastor. He knows the poor. They are his people and, now, stunningly, he is showing himself to be their pope. That may not cohere with the academic thoughts on economics from our friends at the Acton Institute, indeed, I am dying to see what they have to say on this text. They had half a dozen posts up on other issues at their blog yesterday, but not a word on Evangelii Gaudium which is, as they say, in their wheelhouse.

I apologize for the lengthy table setting, but I think it is important to understand any of the individual texts we will now consider.

Pope Francis states:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. (#53)

Anyone who was still hoping to usefully deploy the concept of intrinsic evil as the touchstone for the Church’s engagement with politics must now overcome this paragraph. The pope is aware that negative proscriptions of the moral law – thou shalt not murder – have a precision that positive proscriptions – you must care for the poor – do not. By invoking the same “thou shalt not” language, he is raising the status of the admittedly non-intrinsic evil of poverty. And, this blunt talk about the economy makes me hope that Catholic University’s business school cashed that check from the Koch Brothers already! They gave the money to study “principled entrepreneurship,” but me thinks they will not be thrilled if the school is applying the principles Francis articulates here.

In the next paragraph, for the first time in a papal text, Pope Francis specifically names “trickle down economics” and condemns it. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system,” he writes. I made the exact same point, albeit less trenchantly, in my debate with Fr. Sirico last January. But, Francis goes even further in the next paragraph, #55, when he refers to the “new and ruthless” golden calf, and the “dictatorship of an impersonal economy.” Thank you Papa Francesco for stating this. I am reading Samuel Gregg’s “Tea Party Catholic” – a review of which is forthcoming – and he constantly derides the impersonal bureaucracy of government but fails to note the impersonal bureaucracy of the modern economy. Conservative Catholics warn darkly about government bureaucrats interfering with people’s health care due to Obamacare, but fail to mention that insurance company bureaucrats have been interfering with people’s health care for decades.

This last point of blindness on the part of my friends on the right is confront quite squarely by Pope Francis in #56. He writes:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. 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. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

I suppose Mr. Gregg considers this all “dirigiste” and too Keynesian. But, the pope is simply stating, albeit in very precise and accessible language, what popes have been saying since the late nineteenth century. Just as too much governmental power can be a source of tyranny, too much economic power, concentrated in too few hands, can also be a source of tyranny and enslavement.

As I said at the outset, Pope Francis is not an economist but a pastor. And, so whatever technical economic arguments can be mounted to confront the previous paragraphs, when the pope turns to the religious and cultural effects of neo-liberal economics, no amount of economic data can be used to refute his argument. He writes:

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 of 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. (#57)

Here is the religious danger of libertarian, neo-liberal markets. They not only fail to provide for the common good, they enslave people and impede their full realization precisely because they can leave no room for God. Oh, yes, you can grow rich and donate money to charity. You can volunteer. But, so long as the internal rewards and punishments of the market are driven by what Fr. Sirico calls a “morally neutral” calculus, those same market-oriented attitudes infect the rest of the culture, and even religion, in destructive ways.

Pope Francis sees the ill effects of the market-driven world spreading like a cancer throughout society. “Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric,” he writes at #60. In #62, the pope warns against globalization which gives priority to those cultures that are “economically advanced but ethically debilitated.” That would be a reference to us, here in the States. In #63, he notes that the human misery and loneliness created by neo-liberal markets and the culture they propagate, leads to an increase in fundamentalism and cheap spirituality, as people look for a quick fix to that misery and loneliness. And, he challenges the Church’s pastors not to be satisfied with “an administrative approach” to the problem of poverty. And, he clearly sees the whole tide of secularization as flowing from the cultural patterns set by the consumer society, as seen in #64.

Pope Francis also challenges liberals and points out a certain hypocrisy that I am sure he is encountered in his dealings with politicians in Argentina. He writes:

Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries – even those where Christians are a minority – the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defence of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and universities around the world! This is a good thing. Yet, we find it difficult to make people see that when we raise other questions less palatable to public opinion, we are doing so out of fidelity to precisely the same convictions about human dignity and the common good.

I hope my liberal friends who embrace Pope Francis when he speaks about the poor will think deeply about these words of his: “precisely the same convictions about human dignity and the common good.” There is plenty of libertarianism on the left to be worried about also, and we cannot be hiding behind the idea that it is not anyone’s place to tell a woman she can’t have an abortion unless we also allow that it is not anyone’s place to tell the rich what they can and can’t do with their money. And, Friday, we will commend Francis for clearly defending the Church's teaching against abortion as part of our teaching in favor of human dignity and the common good.

This first section on social justice in Evangelii Gaudium will be a stumbling block for some of my friends on the right. I can assure them that when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, many of us on the left found some of his sayings hard. Pope Francis seems to acknowledge this and writes, at #69, “We must keep in mind, however, that we are constantly being called to grow.” I found that to understand Benedict, I had to stretch. Once I was finished stretching, I came to develop a deep affection for Benedict, to see what he was trying to say, to recognize him as a great gift to the life of the Church, not just in an analytical way, but as someone who teachings encouraged me to become a better Catholic. I hope that my conservative friends – and my liberal friends – will take Francis’ invitation to grow seriously.

Friday, we will look at the second treatment of social doctrine in Evangelii Gaudium in Chapter 4 and wrap up our analysis.






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