On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, became Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church's 266th bishop of Rome. From the start, the leitmotif of Francis's pontificate has been concern for the poor. The Boston Globe noted, "Francis' top priority has been to reach out to the world's poor and inspire Catholic leaders to go to slums and other peripheries to preach" (Winfield 2013). The New York Times reported, "Francis has placed the poor at the center of his papacy" (Yardley and Romero 2015).
Speaking in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in 2015, Pope Francis said, "Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment" (2015a, 3.1).
Concern for the disadvantaged is reiterated in his book The Name of God Is Mercy (2016), his first book as pope: "We have received freely, we give freely. We are called to serve Christ the Crucified through every marginalized person. We touch the flesh of Christ in he who is outcast, hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, ill, unemployed, persecuted, in search of refuge" (98). This statement follows closely his homily on Ash Wednesday of 2014: "Gratuitousness should be one of the characteristics of the Christian, who aware of having received everything from God gratuitously, that is, without any merit of his own, learns to give to others freely. Today gratuitousness is often not part of daily life where everything is bought and sold" (Francis 2014b).
To his considerable credit, Pope Francis has emphasized the moral responsibility to give to those less fortunate. But a careful review reveals that voluntary private giving is not the charitable "giving" the pope often speaks of. The pope instead emphasizes government redistribution and a larger role for international organizations in facilitating transfers. Unfortunately, the approach he advocates generally results in more human suffering, not less, thus undercutting his call to help the poor.
Pope Francis on Government Redistribution
Pope Francis calls for an expanded role for government redistribution in efforts to alleviate poverty, especially for more government-to-government transfers and more activism by international organizations.
Speaking at the United Nations (UN) in May 2014, Francis said, "A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world's peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State" (2014a, emphasis added). He views government redistribution as both legitimate and necessary to combat poverty; thus, his solution includes forcibly redistributing money and wealth from the rich to the poor: "I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity [Doctor of the Church John Chrysostom, a fourth-century saint]: 'Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs'" (2013, 57).
The pope puts much faith in the ability of international organizations such as the UN and its associated agencies to help solve major social problems. Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2015, he said, "The history of this organized community of states is one of important common achievements over a period of unusually fast-paced changes" (2015c).
The pope favors a more active role for international organizations to facilitate government redistribution and to regulate businesses: "The international financial agencies should care for the sustainable development of countries and should ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion, and dependence" (Francis 2015c).
Francis fails to recognize, however, an important difference between government redistribution and private charitable giving. Redistribution of income or wealth by government, whether domestically or internationally, is neither "giving" nor "charity" in the strict sense of these words. Government "giving"--redistribution through domestic welfare programs, foreign aid, or other programs--requires the government first to obtain the money from someone else, either through taxes or borrowing. Because borrowing must be eventually paid for with taxes, government "giving" always requires coercively taking some individual's or some group's income in the form of taxes or wealth, such as land, and giving it to some other individual or group--perhaps those deemed by government officials as more deserving or perhaps those who are merely members of the ruling coalition. The redistribution advocated by Francis appears to violate the commandment "You shall not steal" because government redistribution always and necessarily involves force or coercion.
Redefining charity as an entitlement of the poor ("It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs") also encourages a war of one class against another and claims by the relative poor to hold "true" property ownership in other people's income (e.g., those who refuse to work living off the labor of those who do work).
In contrast, charitable giving within a capitalist economy is voluntary. Capitalism is first an expression of giving. An entrepreneur succeeds only by satisfying a customer's wants. Capitalism is a competition in giving. To survive and make a profit, the entrepreneur must create wealth, selling goods and services that customers want and are willing to buy in mutually beneficial trades. Workers are rewarded based on their contributions, using their skills, to the happiness and well-being of others.
Charitable giving in a capitalist economy involves the willing transfer of resources acquired through voluntary trade to recipients chosen by the donor. The recipient must also voluntarily agree to accept the transfer. As Robert Whaples observes, true charity "is a mutual exchange between people with equal dignity" (2016, 611). Force or coercion is never used, and nobody has a property-right claim on the fruits of another's labor without voluntary agreement.
Whereas private giving is voluntary charity, government "giving"--that is, redistribution--is never a charitable act because it is always rooted in force. Only an act of free will to help those less fortunate is a true act of charity. If a charitable organization were to force people to donate to it, this would be an act of theft, not an act of kindness. And just because people donate to charities on their own does not mean the government should force people to "donate" an amount tire government determines.
Moreover, democratic state redistribution does not lend consent to such redistribution in comparison to nondemocratic redistribution. The position of a majority regarding charitable activities is not morally superior to the view of the individual, as Jesus stated clearly in Matthew 26:6-13, the Anointing at Bethany, in defending a woman's voluntary charitable decision to help him rather than perform an alternative charitable action favored by the majority, comprising the disciples.
It does little, if any, good to force people to "care" for others: it does not make them more compassionate citizens. Forced government transfers actually destroy genuine charity within society'. They serve primarily to make people more accepting of the use of force to achieve ends they consider worthy and produce resentment and division among those forced to give to "charitable" endeavors they do not choose to support. Freedom of choice and the exercise of conscience are better suited to making people more compassionate citizens.
Ironically, by supporting government redistribution worldwide, Francis's suggestions result in removing free will from the equation and thus removing true charity or genuine compassion from the act of giving in favor of statist coercion (Mitchell 2014). The high taxes needed to fuel the redistributive state also undermine initiative and the incentives and institutions that drive wealth creation and end absolute poverty (which we discuss more fully later in this essay).
Francis never identifies real-world government programs that best achieve his vision of distributive justice. In this regard, he is guilty of the vice of vagueness, which is no substitute for knowledge and leaves the pope espousing nothing but what he sees as good intentions. Christians have long taught that faith alone is not sufficient for temporal matters such as economics--reason and knowledge are necessary. Indeed, Catholic theologians see faith and reason as complementary, (1) and the phrase faith and reason is often associated with Catholic discussions of science, economics, and other "worldly" disciplines.
While Francis calls for a more activist role for governments and international agencies in redistribution, he also makes unrelenting attacks on capitalism.
Pope Francis on Capitalism
Pope Francis frequently lambastes capitalism. In May 2015, he wrote that those who favor the invisible hand of markets suffer from the same mindset that leads to slavery, the sexual exploitation of children, and the abandonment of the elderly (2015b, 123).
In 2016, standing just across the border from the United States in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Francis said that God will hold accountable the "slave drivers" who exploit workers. He alleged that capitalism leads to a "prevailing mentality [that] advocates for the greatest possible profits, immediately and at any cost" (qtd. in Pulidla and Stargardter 2016).
Francis argues that money has become an "idol," reducing people to "simple instruments of a social and economic system" (qtd. in Abela 2015). In July 2015, he famously called the "unfettered pursuit of money ... the dung of the devil" (2015a...