Is the Pope on the left? Or on the right? Yes

It’s so predictable: When Pope Francis reminds the world that he is pro-life, the right cheers and the left sulks. But when the Pope reminds people that he is on the economic left, the left cheers and the right sulks.

On Monday, Francis tweeted, “Inequality is the root of social evil,” and so once again, the left is cheering. As The Guardian, for example, exulted in its headline, “Pope Francis condemns inequality, thus refusing to play the game/ In explicitly prizing human beings over markets, Francis has confirmed he is a far cry from the Reaganist Pope John Paul II he just canonised.”

It’s worth noting that Francis didn’t say that inequality is evil, he said it is the root of evil. Inequality can be the root of evil, but it can also, of course, be the root of good, in the sense that if we are different, and have different skills, then we can do different things, each in our own diverse way.

This acknowledgement of difference and diversity is at the heart of Catholic thought. It’s one reason why, for instance, Catholics have patron saints, for seemingly every conceivable vocation, and even a few vices. In its nuanced understanding of human nature, the Church has seen the value in celebrating difference--which is to say, at least by some measures, inequality.

Indeed, the Church numbers more than 10,000 saints. They aren’t equal, they are better. And they earned their exalted status through good works and acts of faith. It’s the sort of exemplary behavior that the Church, as a meritocratic institution, strives to encourage and reward.

In the meantime, the Church exists within society, and so it has a mission of looking out for the best interests of believers--and potential believers. And so popes have always been political figures, intervening, as they thought they needed to, in the affairs of both princes and peasants.

Indeed, Francis’ lean to the economic left is not new; it was evident in his career as a priest, bishop, and cardinal in Argentina. Last November, Francis issued the papal encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, in which he lamented: 

Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Lest anyone fail to figure out the object of his criticism, Francis continued: 

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. 

Well, okay. Yet it’s worth noting that long before Francis, the Catholic Church had identified seven deadly sins--pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth--and none of them is inequality. Indeed, to the extent that inequality is a problem, it’s a problem hard-wired into the nature of our society, as Wynton Hall argued here, and as this author argued here.

Yet since Catholics realize this reality of inequality, they have used that understanding as a platform upon which to build a vision of social justice that nevertheless leaves inequality intact--because, after all, there’s no alternative. 

Perhaps the most important Catholic social document of modern times is Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), issued in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. We might note that the sub-headline of the document reads, “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.” So right there, we can see an upfront acknowledgement of difference. That is, inequality is to be dealt with, and its ill-effects are to be ameliorated, but differences will remain.

The late 19th century was a perilous time of social and industrial transformation. Barely a century before, the French Revolution of 1789 had overturned the old order, causing the deaths of crowned heads, Catholic clerics, and millions of ordinary folks. In 1848 came Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and another spate of riots and revolutions. And in 1891, when Leo issued his encyclical, both Europe and America, were vexed by waves of strikes, assassinations, ethnic violence, and terrorism. 

For the sake of peace, as well as for the sake of justice, Leo could see that things needed to change. As he put it, “Some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” 

He continued, “Working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” He added: 

The hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.

Many of those workers, of course, were Catholic, and so Leo felt a particular need to communicate empathy with them. Yet for all his outrage at the status quo, the Pope was nevertheless emphatically against socialism: 

To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. 

This solution, however, was worse than the problem; in the chaos that would result from collectivism, Leo warned, “The working man himself would be among the first to suffer.”

Indeed, he continued, socialism was not only not workable, it was wrong. As he said of socialist ideas, “They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.”

So the Pope was against the status quo, and he was also against socialism. So what was he in favor of? Leo was for balance. He was for what might be called aharmony of inequality. And if that seems complicated, well, nobody ever said Catholic theology was simple. Using more than 14,000 words to outline his ideas, Leo detailed the ground rules of the good society: 

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.

In other words, society should be free and fair, both. In the course of Rerum Novarum, he used the words “duty” and “rights” more than 100 times.

And at all times, Leo based his ideas on the Bible, citing, for example,  Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 and Proverbs 18:9-10:

We read in the pages of holy Writ: “It is better that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. If one fall he shall be supported by the other. Woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth he hath none to lift him up.” And further: “A brother that is helped by his brother is like a strong city.” It is this natural impulse which binds men together in civil society; and it is likewise this which leads them to join together in associations which are, it is true, lesser and not independent societies, but, nevertheless, real societies.

We see important ideas here, concerning the binding of people into an enduring civil society, in which each can work, contribute, and draw benefit. Yet of course, once people begin applying their own unique traits and attributes to the task at hand, the results will not be equal. But hopefully, Leo was saying, the results will still be fair.

Leo’s encyclical helped shape the Catholic social teaching that supported not only the labor movement, but also the platforms of the Christian Democratic parties of Europe and the New Deal-era Democratic Party.

These basic ideas were reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II in a 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, taking note of the 100 years since Rerum Novarum. In describing the tumultuous era of 1891, as capital was poised against labor, John Paul described how Leo stepped in to offer a vision of labor peace:

At the height of this clash, when people finally began to realize fully the very grave injustice of social realities in many places and the danger of a revolution fanned by ideals which were then called “socialist,” Pope Leo XIII intervened with a document which dealt in a systematic way with the “condition of the workers.”

So once again, in that 1991 document, John Paul’s Church sought to lay out ground rules, including both the “dignity of work” and the “right to private property.” In other words, a mixed economy: capitalist, yes, but also a safety net.

Thus we can see a continuity: Leo, John Paul II, and now Francis. And of course, the Holy See would declare that the true continuum reaches all the way back to the first pope, St. Peter.

Here in America, we can see the challenge to both Democrats and Republicans: Does either party walk the walk when it comes to protecting workers? Are the Democrats, for example, truly the party of work, or of welfare? Are they the party that privileges labor, or penguins? And are Republicans willing to make higher wages and salaries as important a priority as greater capital gains? The answers to these policy questions will inevitably be challenging and controversial, and the Church, in its wisdom, has generally left the fine print to be figured out by politicians and regulators.

Yet in the meantime, the Catholic economic message continues to speak loudly to both pols and people: A country can do a lot worse than sticking up for the rights of workers and their families, even as it rejects socialism and economic leveling.

And oh, by the way, this economically leftist pope is still pro-life.


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