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Many conservatives have long scorned traditional Catholic teaching about a just economy. Now that Pope Francis has called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits,” a full-blown freak out has commenced.
John Moody, executive editor of Fox News, railed that the pope “grievously exceeded his authority” and is becoming “a robe-wearing politician.” Sean Hannity lectured the pope about the virtues of hard work, reminding us that Jesus’ father was an honest sweat-of-the brow carpenter. Rush Limbaugh nearly swallowed his stogie: “That’s Marxism. That’s socialism!” Rush raged. Father John Zuhlsdorf, a prominent conservative Catholic blogger, accused the pope of being “naïve” and “out of step with history,” echoing Rep. Paul Ryan’s earlier patronizing critique that the pope is simply ignorant of U.S-style capitalism.
Pope Francis has made economic justice, specifically the stark gap between rich and poor, a defining theme of his papacy. In his Apostolic Exhortation the Joy of the Gospel, Francis writes that “trickle down” economic theories — a sacred ideology for many conservatives — express a “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” Framing economic dignity as a “pro-life” issue, the pope insists that we must reject an “economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” In a recent tweet to his more than 10 million Twitter followers, the pope called inequality “the root of social evil.” When Francis dared to utter the “R” word (redistribution) last week, he crossed into highly charged terrain in this country that brought to mind candidate Obama’s infamous 2008 run-in with “Joe the Plumber.”
But Pope Francis’ understanding of “redistribution” doesn’t come from liberal think tanks or display a knee-jerk aversion to capitalism. It grows from orthodox Catholic teaching that is rooted in biblical values about the shared gift of creation. As the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (published during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate) explains:
Goods, even when legitimately owned, always have a universal destination; any type of improper accumulation is immoral, because it openly contradicts the universal destination assigned to all goods by the Creator. . . . Evil is seen in the immoderate attachment to riches and the desire to hoard.
The Compendium is clear that “wealth exists to be shared.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church — you know, that classic left-wing tract — refers to “sinful inequalities” that are “in open contradiction to the Gospel.”
While Rush Limbaugh’s predictable screeds that the pope is preaching “Marxism” are extreme, his argument that the church should simply focus on providing “charity” is not an uncommon view. Many Americans, including more than a few Catholics, forget that the church is not only concerned with charity, but also justice. The frequently ignored Christian concept of “social sin” recognizes that the root causes of poverty are often found in unjust structures, not simply personal behavior.
When the powerful rig the rules of the global economy to reward a few at the expense of the many, injustice is woven into the fabric of political, social and financial institutions. The pope is reading the “signs of the times” — extreme disparities that cause preventable suffering and death — through the lens of traditional church teaching about human dignity and the common good. “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” St. Augustine observed long ago.
Pope Francis is not going rogue. The Catholic social tradition endorses a living wage for workers, defends the importance of unions, a positive role for government and the prudent regulation of financial markets. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labor positioned the Catholic Church as a formidable moral counterweight to the savage capitalism of the Industrial Era. Pope Benedict XVI decried the “scandal of glaring inequalities.” Pope John Paul II warned against the “idolatry” of the market.
Critics who insist that Pope Francis should “stick to doctrine” and stop talking about inequality conveniently ignore that responding to the cries of the poor is a fundamental doctrine of the church. In a recent speech at Fordham University, Cardinal Walter Kasper said “to care for the poor is church doctrine.” Catholic teaching about abortion, for example, is not an isolated position but rooted in the same respect for the dignity of all life that drives the church’s commitment to the poor, the immigrant, the prisoner on death row and the dying.
In a homily before the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston described poverty as a “dehumanizing force” and insisted that “the Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world.” Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy of San Francisco has argued that Pope Francis’ teachings “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation” and point to “the centrality of addressing poverty as an imperative for Catholics in the public order.”
Market fundamentalists who demonize government and defend an economic status quo that leaves billions of people around the globe trapped in poverty should be nervous. The Catholic Church is not on your side, and Pope Francis is just getting warmed up.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.