More Dissent on the Right

by Michael Sean Winters

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While my phone line and email inbox were filling with delight at the Holy Father’s addresses during his Latin American tour last week, especially his talk to the World Congress of Social Movements, it appears that some other prominent Catholic commentators were crying in their beer or gnashing their teeth. It did not take long for them to vent their frustrations.

You could expect Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute to be first in line. He has a post up at “The Stream” that accuses of the pope of sounding suspiciously like Juan Peron and Evo Morales: “some expressions used by Pope Francis in Bolivia last week at the second World Meeting of Popular Movements not only echoed particular themes emphasized by Latin American populists but also shared some of their misdiagnosis of the region’s problems.” By “misdiagnosis” Gregg means that the Holy Father does not, like Gregg, worship at the oracle of neoliberal economics, whence cometh the only viable solution to the world’s economic problems.

Gregg poses the question and answers it himself: “[O]ne wonders whether Pope Francis and his advisors have ever studied the respective merits of free trade versus protectionism. My suspicion is they haven’t, since tariffs and subsidies are precisely what allow already-wealthy countries to limit developing countries’ access to global markets. By definition, it’s protectionism that is an economy of exclusion — not free trade.” As is always the case with our laissez-faire friends, the word “free” is left to carry a lot of interpretive water in that sentence. The Actonites applaud globalization, but seem not to notice that even if the formal rules of economic exchange are in some sense free, if the exchange of goods and services, of capital and labor, is denominated solely by financial calculi, then the very, very rich are a lot more free than the very, very poor when those exchanges take place. And so, poor peasants are enticed off their land for a pittance, brought to the cities with the promise of work, but the work does not sustain them or does not last (there is always a cheaper labor market somewhere), and they are unable to return to their land and their previous ways of living which may not have produced affluence but were better than the slums. Meanwhile, the multinationals that purchased the land set about extracting whatever is valuable from it, reaping huge profits. I suppose this process could be considered free, but it sure seems rigged to me.

No one, so far as I know, really favors pure protectionism. The concern is that free trade pacts like NAFTA and TPP open up foreign markets to U.S. investors, and they balance those investor rights with promises of labor standards. But, many governments lack the ability to enforce labor standards. Minimum wage laws are routinely flouted in the countries of Central America, despite the promises made in NAFTA and CAFTA. Investors are given special juridical procedures if they have a complaint. The workers must fend for themselves. Again, the whole system may be free in some academic sense, but it is exploitative in practice.

In what is surely one of the great understatements of papal commentary, Mr. Gregg allows that “Likewise while the historical record of multinational corporations in developing nations isn’t lily-white, they have bought desperately-needed investment and jobs to Latin America.” Not “lily-white”? How about mostly evil”! How else to characterize companies that dump toxic, even nuclear, waste in parts of the developing world, without warning the inhabitants? How else to characterize the deforestation of the Amazon basin, which not only harms the natives, it harms a delicate ecosystem that is essential to global environmental health? How else to characterize a system that may increase a country’s GDP but creates the kind of shantytowns the Holy Father visited on his trip? Are we to just ignore the downside of the system? Pat ourselves on the back for “lifting millions out of poverty” even if other millions are kicked to the curb? With no organized effort to help those who have been excluded, those for whom the market was not a solution?

I can understand, sort of, why some libertarians came to the conclusions they did. If you experienced the horrors of Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism, you can be forgiven a bit for, pardon the pun, over-investing in the ideology of the free market. But, Gregg is from Australia. The leader of his organization, Fr. Robert Sirico, grew up here in the U.S.A. It is true that Sirico’s libertarian sensibilities first manifested themselves in sexual matters: He was, after all, the first person to perform a same sex marriage ceremony in the state of Colorado, way back in 1975. Subsequently, he turned his back on his sexual libertarianism and turned his libertarian id towards the world of economics. It is no more consistent with Church teaching now than it was then.

Another prominent critic of Pope Francis is George Weigel. His article in National Review essentially complains that Francis is not John Paul II whom Weigel claims was the “most consequential pope of the second half of the second millennium.” That is quite a claim. Pius IV, who saw the Council of Trent to its conclusion? Pius VII who led the Church through the Napoleonic Wars? Leo XIII whose seminal encyclical affected Catholic intellectual life and gave birth to what we now know as the social doctrine of the Church? John XXIII who convoked the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI who saw it through and guided its implementation? Nah. None of them compare for the man whose biography of John Paul II contains not a single word of criticism of his hero.

Pope Francis has not “forgotten” John Paul II as Weigel laments. For example, he, like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, has had to deal with the clergy sex abuse mess that John Paul II refused to confront. But, Francis is not out of the papal mainstream when it comes to the Church’s social doctrine. His teachings and views are consistent with those of his predecessors. The differences are that Weigel tried to whitewash John Paul’s critique of modern consumer capitalism and the Pope Francis is so blunt about it, there is no way to spin his words or, if you will, no way to deploy differently colored pens to mark out what must be followed and what ignored.

Weigel is also disturbed that Francis did not present a stern public image when confronting Bolivian President Evo Morales, as John Paul II confronted Gen. Jaruzelski in Poland. But, the comparison is inexact: Morales did not gain his office in a coup, for example. Weigel hurls some criticisms at Cardinal Casaroli, who was Vatican Secretary of State in the late 1970s, and oddly, at Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, who was Vatican Secretary of State, or its equivalent, in the early nineteenth century. I think both men should be considered among the finest servants of the Church in her history, certainly more so than the corrupt Cardinal Sodano to whom John Paul II entrusted the job.

The real problem with Weigel’s analysis, however, is not his assessment of various personalities, but his conflation of Soviet-style Marxism with contemporary, leftist populism. True, Morales is only too willing to repress opposition to his rule, but he is no Stalin. The rise of populist governments in certain Latin American countries is a reaction to the depredations of the global economy, it has not occurred with the benefit of Soviet tanks in the streets. Weigel thinks anyone who does not embrace his understanding of sound economic policy and democratic norms is wrong, period, and now he includes Pope Francis in that indictment. A more honest reading of John Paul II’s writings than Weigel provides might have landed the Polish pope in the dock too. But, it is Weigel who refuses to accept the social doctrine of the Church and who lacks the intellectual heft to try and bring some measure of authentic development in that doctrine. So, he mourns the loss of his sainted pope and compares the current pope unfavorably to his hero.

I have long suspected that the opposition to Pope Francis would manifest itself as fidelity to Pope John Paul II. The most recent issue of the Knights of Columbus magazine features a long meditation of John Paul II’s teachings on marriage and family life. Some priests have taken to calling themselves “John Paul II priests,” as if a priest belonged not to Christ but to one, and only one, of His vicars on earth. This is dangerous business.

Pope Francis said on the plane back from Latin America that before he comes to the U.S. in September he will read some of the criticisms of his words. Here are two candidates for his reading. Gregg and his colleagues at Acton are ideologues, pure and simple, and the pope need not address their arguments, only their influence. Well funded, they try to spread their laissez faire Gospel throughout the ecclesial world, flying in bishops from developing nations to their seminars and lectures. Anything the pope could do to clip their wings would be welcome. That group of conservative U.S. Catholics who celebrate the legacy of John Paul II at Francis’ expense can easily be confronted with those parts of John Paul II’s legacy that they have tended to overlook, such as his calls for a conversion of Western consumer lifestyles, his ambivalence about modern capitalism, and his deep, abiding understanding of the dignity of work and those organizations, labor unions, that give voice to workers.

But, the pope should know that the opposition to him is small, noisy but small. There are plenty of conservative Catholics, those who worship at Mass but who do not subscribe to First Things, who seem him as a champion too. It turns out that plenty of conservative, mostly white, working class Americans know that “the system” has not been working for them either. You do not have to go to Bolivia to look at the economy from the bottom up. And, viewing the economy from the bottom up, not through the pristine laissez faire ideology peddled at Acton, or through the neo-con conformity of Weigel and his ilk, is not a view unique to Pope Francis. Viewing the economy, and all of social life, from the bottom up is not only characteristic of previous pontiffs, it is the way Jesus of Nazareth viewed the world when He walked the earth.



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