06 December 2013, The Tablet

On the economy, Francis says what no politician will

by Dr Anna Rowlands and Dr Mark Hayes

Pope Francis' first major document Evangelii Gaudium has sparked criticism from economists who defend the trickle-down theory of economics, whereby the spending of the rich creates work and therefore wealth for those further down the financial chain. The Pope said it had simply led to a widening rich-poor gap and a ‘globalisation of indifference’. In contrast to Philip Booth in an earlier posting, here two academics say he's spot on

In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis says what no politician will: radical inequality of income is a fundamental social issue, a threat to basic wellbeing, to social participation and to peace.

Francis’s document repeats precisely the emphasis on capitalism that has been the hallmark of 120 years of Catholic social teaching on economics. This body of work collectively represents over a century of reflection on the question: how do you shape an economy more genuinely in the service of humankind? Key to this tradition is teaching advocating the just distribution of the earths resources, just prices and living wages, caution about usury, a structural priority of labour over capital, a duty to contribute to public taxation and a social view of the purpose of private property.

Evangelii Gaudium does not so much change or depart from Catholic social teaching as intensify its critique of capitalism and bring to bear upon it Francis’ unique hermeneutic. Francis’ rejection of “trickle-down” economics as “naïve” is as withering as the parable of Dives and Lazarus. He identifies as an ideology as false as Marxism – even an idolatry – the view that genuine human freedom requires the absolute autonomy of markets, notably financial markets, from ethical and social policy. He is careful to distinguish enterprise, a noble vocation when understood as a form of service, from the speculation at the heart of today’s financial system. He questions the fitness for purpose of an economic model in which there is no room for the slow, the weak or the less talented, except as objects of increasingly grudging welfare.

Francis understands power and that it is no accident that society, business, government and church are as they are. Those covetous of power or pleasure will always find a just and peaceful society insipid. Market liberalisation has created an economy of exclusion “where the powerful feed upon the powerless”. Francis asks for nothing less than a liberation of the spirit in which humility and tenderness are understood “not as virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves”.

His call for a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach coincides with the sorry spectacle of the crisis at the Co-operative Bank. Things are not always what they seem and all human institutions are vulnerable. Yet the luminous plain-language message of joy here is that the power of Christ’s resurrection is irresistible. This is not an academic writing to construct a nuanced case, this is a spiritual leader who wants to help us see what our economic system by and large tries to hide, and to help us take responsibility for our place within it.

Some will be unhappy with this document. Francis anticipates this when he asks us not to take offence, reminds us that this isn’t a full “social encyclical”, and notes that his apostolic exhortation doesn’t stand alone. But, here lies one of the other surprises of this document: Pope Francis seems unafraid to talk about the very real conflicts that underlie our societies, either the closed and violent conflicts that need to be utterly transformed, or the conflicts over questions of the common good that we need to engage with honestly.

The juxtaposition last week of Evangelii gaudium with London Mayor Boris Johnson’s “greed is good” speech couldn’t have been sharper, and represents one face of such a conflict. Francis’ endeavour is to engage directly with conflict in search of reconciled diversity, prising open conflicts in a radical humanising project that seeks to forge new links in the human chain.

Dr Anna Rowlands is a Lecturer in Theology and Ministry at Kings College, London and  the founding director of a new centre for Catholic social thought and practice. Dr Mark Hayes is Director of Studies in Economics at Robinson College, Cambridge University

What do you think?


You can post as a subscriber user ...

User comments (2)

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 12/12/2013 13:50:50

Yes indeed, and the "ethical approach" asks the questions "Am I acting in solidarity with all; Am I addressing in subsidiarity the correct level in society, and am I acting in compliance with the demands of retinity?"

Comment by: gerry oates
Posted: 08/12/2013 17:59:40

The response from the USA was predictable and amusingly redolent of the cold war rhetoric.'He is advocating communism.'The same polemic used to be applied to the South Americans who were proposing Liberation Theology.Yet the first sermon of Jesus as he began his ministry in his home country was to offer to liberate the oppressed and bring the good news to the poor.

  Loading ...