Political conservatives would do well to remember that everything Pope Francis has been saying about economics has been said by his predecessors before.
Pope Francis commented recently on accusations of Marxism stemming from anti-market language employed in Evangelii Gaudium. Unfortunately overshadowed by his new status as TIME’s Person of the Year (apparently one of the few things that trumps a papal interview these days), the remarks are concise and support the reading of EG offered here, here, and here.
When asked about criticism by “ultraconservatives in the USA” who called him a Marxist, Francis replied:
"The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.
"[. . .] There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger [sic] nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist."
Also overlooked amidst the fallout from Evangelii Gaudium was a statement by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, which defended not only Francis’s remarks in EG, but also their specific context, as as well as the greater role of the Church vis-à-vis economics and morality. In his own release, Benedict wrote:
"In order to find solutions that will truly lead us forward, new economic ideas will be necessary. But such measures do not seem conceivable or, above all, practicable without new moral impulses. It is at this point that a dialogue between Church and economy becomes both possible and necessary.
"Let me clarify somewhat the exact point in question. At first glance, precisely in terms of classical economic theory, it is not obvious what the Church and the economy should actually have to do with one another, aside from the fact that the Church owns businesses and so is a factor in the market. The Church should not enter into dialogue here as a mere component in the economy, but rather in its own right as Church."
Benedict went on to castigate Smithian economics, in particular—a system where “voluntary ‘moral’ actions contradict market rules and drive the moralizing entrepreneur out of the game”—as a culprit against which the Church must align:
"The great successes of this theory concealed its limitations for a long time. But now in a changed situation, its tacit philosophical presuppositions and thus its problems become clearer. Although this position admits the freedom of individual businessmen, and to that extent can be called liberal, it is in fact deterministic in its core. It presupposes that the free play of market forces can operate in one direction only, given the constitution of man and the world, namely, toward the self-regulation of supply and demand, and toward economic efficiency and progress."
As Francis remarked, however, “Marxist ideology is wrong,” too. And Benedict pulled no punches in backing this claim, as well.
"In terms of the structure of its economic theory and praxis, the Marxist system as a centrally administered economy is a radical antithesis to the market economy. Salvation is expected because there is no private control of the means of production, because supply and demand are not brought into harmony through market competition, because there is no place for private profit seeking, and because all regulations proceed from a central economic administration. Yet, in spite of this radical opposition in the concrete economic mechanisms, there are also points in common in the deeper philosophical presuppositions. The first of these consists in the fact that Marxism, too, is deterministic in nature and that it too promises a perfect liberation as the fruit of this determinism. For this reason, it is a fundamental error to suppose that a centralized economic system is a moral system in contrast to the mechanistic system of the market economy. This becomes clearly visible, for example, in Lenin’s acceptance of Sombart’s thesis that there is in Marxism no grain of ethics, but only economic laws."
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