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Pope Francis and the Caring Society: A Review

A couple of years ago, I received Pope Francis and the Caring Society (Oakland, CA: Independent Institute, 2017) from David J. Theroux of the Independent Institute. I very rarely review books for Notablog, but this sure did look like an interesting work. And it is, in fact, a challenging volume worthy of attention.

Consisting of seven chapters written by a diverse group of authors, it is edited by Robert M. Whaples and includes a foreword by Michael Novak. The book engages in a dialogue of sorts with Pope Francis specifically on matters of political economy and social justice. Novak states upfront that "the book shares [the Pope's] commitment to Judeo-Christian teachings and institutions. In the process, the book's authors are seeking constructively to engage and educate civic and business leaders and the general public to understand the legacy and meaning of the natural law, moral and economic principles of liberty, personal responsibility, enterprise, civic virtue, family and community, and the rule of law" (xix).

But editor Whaples makes it clear in his Introduction that this book is designed "to advance the dialogue at a critical juncture" in Pope Francis's papal reign (2). It seeks to educate the papacy on the virtues of free markets in resolving many of the problems that the Pope has blamed on "capitalism"---whatever that term means. Indeed, referring to Pope John Paul II, Novak suggests that "capitalism" means different things to different folks: for some, it is about the liberating force of free trade and open markets; for others, it is about special privileges vested in the wealthy by a state that bolsters their power at the expense of the poor (xxv). And nothing could be more un-Christian than embracing a system that is designed to exploit the least-advantaged people in a society.

One of the most important contributions of this book is that it places Pope Francis's views of capitalism in an understandable context. This is a man who came from Argentina---with its history of Peronist corporatism, which enriched its business clients. And if this is what Pope Francis views as "a model of capitalism," one "that friends of free markets rightly reject as capitalism at its worst," not reflective of how markets work under different institutional and cultural contexts (3), then it certainly helps to explain the Pope's "much lower opinion of capitalism and market economies than most economists" (25). This is a crucially important point in any exploration of the Pope's economic perspective. As one who has embraced dialectical method, the supreme "art of context-keeping," I have grown wary of using the very term "capitalism"---despite Ayn Rand's own projection of the "unknown ideal" that such a social system would embody. Her concept of "capitalism" is almost a Weberian "ideal type," organically connected to the notion of individual rights, in which all property is privately owned. But even she argues that such a system has never existed in its purest form. In many ways, her ahistorical re-conceptualization of terms such as "capitalism" and even "government" (ideally viewed as a voluntarily funded institution strictly limited to the protection of individual rights)---differs fundamentally from "the known reality."

Indeed, as Friedrich Hayek reminds us in "History and Politics," his introductory essay to Capitalism and the Historians: "In many ways it is misleading to speak of 'capitalism' as though this had been a new and altogether different system which suddenly came into being toward the end of the eighteenth century; we use this term here because it is the most familiar name, but only with great reluctance, since with its modern connotations it is itself largely a creation of that socialist interpretation of economic history with which we are concerned” (14-15, 1954 edition, University of Chicago Press).

Given this reality, I found Andrew M. Yuengert's chapter, "Pope Francis, His Predecessors, and the Market," to be especially important. Yuengert argues that, as a "citizen of Argentina---a country that is without political institutions capable of putting the economy at the service of the common good and that instead uses and is used by business and political interests to increase the power of business and political elites," the Pope witnessed "a prime example of how crony capitalism and statist control of the economy can wreck a country that deserves better" (43-44). Nevertheless, it is also true that the Pope's analysis of the market economy has been in keeping with an emerging tradition of "Catholic social teaching" that is increasingly at odds with the very idea of a market society (47).

Samuel Gregg, in his chapter, "Understanding Pope Francis: Argentina, Economic Failure, and the Teologia del Pueblo," reinforces Yuengert's points. He argues correctly that the Pope's views of the market economy "did not emerge in a vacuum" (51). Likewise, Gabriel X. Martinez focuses on the oligarchic nature of Argentinian economic nationalism, pointing out that even attempts to "liberalize" the economy have benefited entrenched interests. All of this is the prism through which the Pope views market societies; is it any wonder that he is at odds with those who offer market solutions to government-created problems? Instead, he has adopted a state-centered approach of massive government redistribution as the means to alleviate poverty.

Lawrence J. McQuillan and Hayeon Carol Park take on this issue with vigor. The authors point out the obvious: A market economy generates the wealth that makes possible charitable giving on a scale hitherto unknown. Government "redistribution" does not generate wealth; it can only "coercively" take money from one group and give it to another (89). They argue that "[f]orced 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" (90)---something that should resonate with the Church's teachings. The authors also analyze Pope Francis's early writings (under his given name, Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires), in which he focused on "the limits of capitalism"---which accepted many of the premises of the Marxist-hued liberation theology that bloomed in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s (92). The authors make fine use of the Hayekian argument on "the knowledge problem" that permeates nonmarket societies, and why governmental intervention is not the best way to achieve the equality that the Pope seeks.

My favorite quote in this chapter comes from none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who gave us the corporatist New Deal as an answer to the government-induced 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s that followed. FDR saw the dangers of fostering a "culture of dependency" in the welfare state he himself was building: "Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit" (109). For the same reason, these authors argue, Papal support for increased governmental redistributive efforts will only undermine the ability of entrepreneurs to produce the wealth that can support private charity. They warn that "[t]he road to hell and to poverty is paved with good intentions" (111).

While this book does not address this Pope's views on non-economic topics (e.g., on the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church or any evolution in Church teachings on birth control and sexuality), it does focus some additional attention on the environment, conservation, and the family, in chapters written by A. M. C. Waterman, Philip Booth, and Allan C. Carlson. Booth is especially good on the "tragedy of the commons" (164) in generating environmental decay and industrial pollution.

Robert P. Murphy provides a bold conclusion to the volume: "Historically, there has been an undeniable tension, if not outright conflict, between religion and economics" (199). He laments the "impasse" (199) and hopes that the current work can contribute to "a foundation of mutual respect" as each side engages the other (201).

All I can say is: From Murphy's lips to God's ears.