Review: 'This Economy Kills'

I have never met Andrea Tornielli, the great Vaticanista at La Stampa, nor his colleague Giacomo Galeazzi. But reading their fabulous book, This Economy Kills: Pope Francis on Capitalism and Social Justice, I fear that when we do meet, we will find ourselves finishing each others' sentences. 

If you are looking for a book that gives a concise and well organized exposition of what Pope Francis has said about economic matters, this is your book. If you have not really been paying attention, and need a good introduction to Catholic social thought generally and Pope Francis' way of explaining it specifically, this is also your book. And, most especially, if you are concerned by those who don't like the pope, Tornielli and Galeazzi take no prisoners when they examine those who oppose Pope Francis and his comments about economic justice.

The authors begin with quotes from earlier times, going back to St. John Chrysostom among thefFathers and again and again to Pope Pius XI. This suits me fine as Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno remains a provocative text all these years later. For example, they quote this passage from that 1931 encyclical:

In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of investment funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure. This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the lifeblood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.

If Pius were alive today, and looking for work, I am think Sen. Bernie Sanders might hire him as a speechwriter. The authors point out that Pius' words still sound radical, but really they are more relevant today than they were then. The human race, alas, is slow to learn.

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The opening chapters give some of Pope Francis' most trenchant criticisms of the contemporary economic landscape and also unearth some very similar things he said when he was the Archbishop of  Buenos Aires, before his election as pope. Much of this latter information was new to me, but unsurprising: Pope Francis has been thinking about these issues for a long time. Similarly, the authors touch on the pope's well documented visit to Lampedusa, where he first deployed the phrase "globalization of indifference," but they also spend time examining his far less noted trip to Sardinia, where he met with workers. "It is a form of suffering, the shortage of work -- that leads you -- excuse me if I am coming over a little strong but I am telling the truth -- to feel that you are deprived of dignity!" the pope said. "Where there is no work there is no dignity! And this is not only a problem in Sardinia -- but it is serious here! -- it is not only a problem in Italy or in certain European countries, it is the result of a global decision, of an economic system which leads to this tragedy, an economic system centered on an idol called 'money.'" As someone who is convinced that the collaboration between organized labor and organized religion is one of the most urgent tasks in our day, these words of Pope Francis gave me hope that he thinks so too.

It is where Tornielli and Galeazzi confront the American neo-cons that they really shine. They note that the "objective convergence" of John Paul's goals for religious freedom behind the Iron Curtain with some of the goals of the Reagan presidency "induced some intellectuals to think (and theorize) that the Catholic Church had indissolubly married -- and the doctrine of marital indissolubility is undoubtedly Catholic -- a specific financial-economic system. A system that was not only consider the best (or most acceptable) of all possible worlds but also the one that, in its own way, was more 'Christian,' more respectful of human freedom and human initiative." This marriage was never consummated, alas, and under this pontificate, the idea seems farcical. No pope, not even John Paul II, was what one could accurately describe as a neo-conservative.

The authors take several pages to examine Michael Novak's treatment of Evangelii Gaudium, published in National Review, noting the way he "downgrades" the exhortation and offers the hope that Francis, like John Paul II, will start listening to people like Novak before pontificating on matters economic again. The tone adopted by Novak (and others) is more than a little condescending. The authors write:

The dogma that Novak has been theorizing and arguing for so far is simple: let the church go on speaking about the poor and charity; let her remind us that we ought to give alms; let her offer us ethical guidance; let her fight battles in defense of life and against the deterioration of certain customs in our decadent Western societies; let her remind us that we must strive to be good and honest. But may she never dare to ask one single question on the current system of capitalism – that same system that at present has no more contact with the real economy and is dominated by the financial markets.

I couldn't have said it better myself. I would only add this question: Are business schools at Catholic universities "daring to ask one single question" about the whole filthy, rotten system, or are they confining themselves to reminding people to be ethical and honest and to give to charity? Put differently, is the Catholic "identity" of our business schools being sold out to economic powers that want to see their behavior blessed, not questioned? If so, what is thirty pieces of silver going for these days?

Best of all, the authors take on Kishore Jayabalan's criticisms of the appointment of Archbishop Blase Cupich to Chicago. Jayabalan is the head of the Acton Institute's Rome office and he was especially disturbed by the participation of then-Bishop Cupich in a conference entitled "Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism," although Jayabalan suggested that Cupich was more nuanced in his presentation than Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, a suggestion that misunderstands how closely the two prelates' visions coincide. Jayabalan, like Novak, thinks churchmen should not speak about economic matters unless they first consult with people like him. "Thanks be to God," Jayabalan concluded "the survival of the Church does not depend on its intellectual sophistication, so I have no doubt the Church will survive this latest bout of misinformed economics and overheated rhetoric among its leaders." As regular readers will remember, I was one of the principal organizers of that conference at which Rodriguez and Cupich spoke. Many attendees thought it was one of the best academic conferences they had ever attended.  And if it brought then-Bishop Cupich to the attention of one of the pope's closest advisors at the very moment when Pope Francis was beginning to think about who should become the archbishop of Chicago, all the better.

The book includes a chapter on how the Catholic neo-cons took issue with much that Pope Benedict XVI had to write as well. They include interviews with some leading Italian thinkers and there is an interview with Pope Francis himself. This last was, of course, covered in the Catholic press before, but it is convenient to have it in book form. I can't recommend this book too much. It is sharply written, unafraid to call a spade a spade, and it rings true from start to finish. Pope Francis has lifted up Catholic social doctrine in a way it really has never shone before, but his thinking is in perfect continuity with the papal magisterium of the past 125 years and, more importantly, with the power and focus of the Gospel. Some may have thought they had successfully hijacked the social doctrine of the church in the 1990s, but they have been proven wrong. This book is the last nail in that coffin. His book is a great read and it should be read by any and all who comment on Catholic social doctrine. 

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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