The fact that there is a need to clarify the points in the Pope’s recent Apostolic Exhortation is testimony to the ignorance of most commentators on Catholic social teaching.
Though there is much that could be said about Evangelii Gaudium as a whole, and about the sections that deal with economics, I want to concentrate on one point only; that there is a need to do so highlights the profound ignorance of most of those who opine about the Church’s social doctrine as to what the popes in their social teaching have actually said. When people can express surprise or alarm or feel the need to explain away various of Francis’ statements, a student of the social encyclicals is tempted to throw up his hands in frustration. That more Catholics do not realize that Francis’ criticisms of market economics are actually very mild by historical standards is an example of that profound loss of Catholic memory that has afflicted the Church since Vatican II. The radicalism of Catholic social teaching has been forgotten along with so much else of our heritage. Even Pope Francis felt compelled to make this point, should “anyone feel offended by my words” (#208). As we will see by the tone of their statements, some of his predecessors did not have so much solicitude for the easily hurt feelings of the defenders of “the absolute autonomy of markets.”
In order to highlight both the continuity of Francis’ teaching with that of earlier popes, as well as our present Holy Father’s comparative mildness of expression, I am going to set next to each other quotations from Evangelii Gaudium with those of earlier popes. I hope it will be apparent that what Francis teaches is entirely in line with the teaching of his predecessors.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #53:
“Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”
Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, #3:
“Hence by degrees it has come to pass that Working Men have been given over, isolated and defenseless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition.”
Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, #47:
“On the one side there is the party which holds the power because it holds the wealth; which has in its grasp all labor and all trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply, and which is powerfully represented in the councils of the State itself. On the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, sore and suffering, always ready for disturbance.”
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #54:
“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #56:
“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… 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 becomes the only rule.”
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #202:
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems….”
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #204:
“We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”
Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, #88:
“Just as the unity of human society cannot be built upon “class” conflict, so the proper ordering of economic affairs cannot be left to the free play of rugged competition. From this source, as from a polluted spring, have proceeded all the errors of the ‘individualistic’ school. This school, forgetful or ignorant of the social and moral aspects of economic activities, regarded these as completely free and immune from any intervention by public authority, for they would have in the market place and in unregulated competition a principle of self-direction more suitable for guiding them than any created intellect which might intervene. Free competition, however, though justified and quite useful within certain limits, cannot be an adequate controlling principle in economic affairs. This has been abundantly proved by the consequences that have followed from the free rein given to these dangerous individualistic ideas.”
Pius XII, “Address to International Foundry Congress,” September 28, 1954:
“The demands of competition, which is a normal consequence of human liberty and ingenuity, cannot be the final norm for economics.”
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #35:
“Such a society ["a society of free work, of enterprise and of participation"] is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.”
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #40:
“It is the task of the State to provide for the defense and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces.”
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #42:
“…there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.”
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #56:
“The Western countries…run the risk of seeing [the collapse of Communism] as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system.”
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #182:
“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven.”
Pius XII, “Address to members of Rinascita Cristiana,” January 22, 1947:
“This task of the Church is indeed arduous, but they are simply unwitting deserters or dupes who, in deference to a misguided supernaturalism, would confine the Church to the `strictly religious’ field, as they say, whereas by so doing they are but playing into the hands of their enemies.”
I could probably fill 10 or even 20 pages with similar quotes. But I will stop here, and urge my readers, as I have urged in the past, to actually read the social encyclicals. It is hard to imagine how a Catholic would presume to express any opinions on social or economic matters who has not actually studied these documents and made their teaching his own. But in any case, I hope that those who have felt alarm at the Church’s latest social document can rest assured that Pope Francis is simply continuing the constant teaching of his predecessors, successors of St. Peter, who will without any doubt teach that same doctrine until the end of the age.
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