Pope Francis on Poverty and Economic Inequality: Good Intentions, Unfortunate Ideas.

AuthorSaravia, Antonio
  1. Introduction

    The election of Jorge Bergoglio as the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013 brought an important shift in emphasis in the church's message. Bergoglio's choice of papal name, Francis, was an early indication of the new priorities. Saint Francis of Assisi was a friar who made of poverty the essence of his lifestyle and preaching. Pope Francis made this objective clear the day after his election when he announced to the media that he wanted "a church which is poor and for the poor!" (Francis 2013a). He has pursued this quest with enthusiasm ever since.

    Indeed, since his election, Pope Francis has formulated numerous specific and courageous analyses on the nature of poverty and its potential solutions. Unfortunately, for all the good intentions that these analyses convey, most are based on questionable economic principles and are not consistent with the empirical evidence. The pope's economic discourse aims at empowering the poor and marginalized using policies that have been repeatedly proven to cause severe unintended consequences and, in many cases, the opposite of the intended results. Perhaps more troubling, the economic principles underlying the pope's economic discourse embed dubious moral elements that the Catholic Church itself has not been able to resolve and that he seems to overlook.

    I analyze Pope Francis's economic discourse as expressed in several documents and speeches produced from 2013 to 2015. The goal is to systematically unveil the underlying economic principles embedded in these speeches and writings and assess them against economic theory and the empirical evidence. I focus on the pope's analysis of poverty and economic inequality and find that the pope's emphasis on poverty is propelled by the belief that economic inequality is intrinsic to poverty's nature.

    This exercise is important for several reasons. First, Pope Francis has become one of the most influential religious leaders of our time. Millions of people (especially the young) follow his preaching and ideas with great enthusiasm. It is important, therefore, to contrast such ideas against grounded theory and the relevant empirical evidence. (1) Second, regardless of religious or political views, most people will agree that the pope is an honest and humble crusader for the poor who only means well. This perception makes him a worldwide leader of high moral stature. As a result, discussions of his ideas center on the ideas themselves and minimize the consideration of vested or personal interests. This is an important element that is not always easy to find when the interlocutors are the poor themselves, workers, unions and/or political leaders. Third, while Pope Francis's economic discourse has spurred great attention from the media and generated a large number of op-eds and blog posts, the number of academic publications analyzing it is surprisingly low. This paper will contribute to filling that gap.

    Methodologically, I start my approach to Pope Francis's economic discourse with his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, in which he makes clear his suspicion of capitalism as a system that could bring about "greater justice and inclusiveness in the world" (Francis 2013b). I then review more than twenty different speeches and writings in which the pope addresses social or economic concerns. While my analysis is limited to the works cited, I believe that these references provide a fair understanding of Pope Francis's overall economic philosophy. As mentioned previously, my focus is on the pope's analysis of poverty and economic inequality. My findings suggest that the economic principles embedded in the pope's economic discourse diverge from economic theory and are not supported by the relevant empirical evidence.

  2. Literature Review

    While there are a large number of op-eds, media reports, and blog posts on Pope Francis's economic discourse, the academic discussion on the subject is surprisingly narrow. One important reference is the symposium on "Pope Francis and Economics" recently published by The Independent Review (Winter 2017). The symposium includes articles by seven authors on different aspects of the pope's economic discourse: Whaples (2017) juxtaposes, mostly at a theoretical level, the pope's economic principles with those commonly held by economists; Yuengert (2017) analyzes the pope's economic views within the evolutionary process of Catholic social teaching; Gregg (2017) explains the pope's views as influenced by his Latin American background and La Teologia del Pueblo (The Theology of the People), Waterman (2017) and Booth (2017) each deal with the pope's views on the environment; and McQuillan and Park (2017) question the pope's embrace of forceful income or wealth redistribution and point out the virtues of individual and voluntary charity.

    Of the aforementioned articles, Whaples (2017) and McQuillan and Park (2017) are of particular relevance for our own analysis. Whaples (2017) starts by documenting the pope's criticism of what the pope calls "excessive consumption," the accumulation of wealth and profit maximization. He then explains how these criticisms result from a different understanding of human behavior than economists have. For example, while economists assume that the homo economicus is subject to the principle of nonsatiation (more is always better), Whaples (2017) argues that the pope believes that "a consumer who never feels satisfied with his material life--who always wants more--is not on the path to God" and adds that "Christian teaching has always been that God made people to have an infinite desire for Him, not to have an insatiable desire for the things of this world." This important difference crucially extends to the understanding of demand and supply and the assessment of markets as resource-allocating mechanisms. Building on this analysis, I assess another important theoretical difference between the pope and economists: the role of property rights. While economists consider well-defined property rights a cornerstone of economic progress and development, the pope relativizes their importance as he prioritizes redistribution to reduce poverty.

    Related to my analysis of the role of property rights, McQuillan and Park (2017) criticize the pope's focus on forceful redistribution and point out the virtues of capitalism in promoting voluntary redistribution (i.e., charity). While agreeing with these authors, I go one step further and question if economic inequality is inherently undesirable and some sort of redistribution (forced or voluntary) must be achieved.

    Another important reference is the round table discussion "Pope Francis and American Economics" published by Horizons, the journal of the College Theology Society (June 2015). For this series, the journal invited four academics to discuss Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times from November 30, 2013, "The Pope and the Right" (Douthat 2013). Two professors of theology (David Cloutier and Matthew Shadle), one professor of economics (Charles Clark), and one professor of both subjects (Mary Hirschfeld) participated in the discussion.

    Cloutier (2015) described Douthat's (2013) column as a piece offering a "more nuanced critique" of Pope Francis's Evangelii gaudium (Francis 2013b) than the mostly negative reaction it generated among conservatives. Indeed, although Douthat (2013) argues that Pope Francis's "plain language tilts leftward in ways no serious reader can deny," he claims that the "left-leaning papal rhetoric also allows for right-of-center conclusions." In short, Douthat argues that global capitalism is consistent with the pope's left-leaning economic discourse because of the following reasons: (1) when it comes to lifting people out of poverty, global capitalism has a better track record than any other system; (2) Catholic social teaching favors not only solidarity but also subsidiarity (preference for small local programs over national ones), which encourages voluntarism over bureaucracy; and (3) expansive welfare states can crowd out "what Christianity considers the most basic human goods--by lowering birthrates, discouraging private charity and restricting the Church's freedom to minister in subtle but increasingly consequential ways."

    In general, three of the discussants--Cloutier (2015), Hirschfeld (2015), and Shadle (2015)--try, through different routes, to find a middle ground close to Douthat's (2013) position by arguing that the pope's economic discourse should be understood beyond the market-state binary and taken as moral guidance to the ultimate goal of reducing poverty rather than as a set of policies or instruments designed to do so. In that sense, these authors argue that the pope's economic discourse is neither left nor right and that markets and the state are not final purposes but instruments that must serve the individual.

    On the contrary, the fourth discussant (Clark 2015) interprets the pope's harsh criticism of capitalism as warranted and argues that "laissez-faire economics has always been a normative system based on values Christians reject." Clark (2015) goes further in criticizing capitalism by arguing that "to allow businesses to privatize profits... is a violation of justice (and that such companies do not pay their fair share of taxes to support the government compounds this injustice)."

    Another important reference is Juurikkala (2015), who, similar to Douthat (2013), Cloutier (2015), Hirschfeld (2015), and Shadle (2015), tries to find a middle ground between free-market economics and Pope Francis's economic discourse. Juurikkala's (2015) emphasis is a little more practical, as he argues that "what really matters is that the means are truly effective, and [Pope Francis] knows that the assessment of those means is beyond his competence." But Juurikkala (2015) also supports Pope Francis' economic discourse by arguing that "the vices of society are such that we...

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