The Pope and the President Tackle Inequality and How We Should Respond

President Obama spoke at length about the economy last Wednesday, focusing in particular on the disturbing economic inequality that exists today in the United States. He described:

“a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American. That’s why I ran for president. It was the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.”

President Obama turned many Catholic heads by quoting another world leader who has decried the injustice of deep economic inequality, Pope Francis:

“Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. How could it be, he wrote, that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? But this increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.”

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis addressed economic inequality in the strongest of terms, saying, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” This language directly confronts those who downplay the morally binding nature of Church teaching on social and economic justice, often to support economically libertarian political candidates and movements.

The pope attacked economic systems that are built on social Darwinism, where human persons are objectified and used instrumentally. Pope Francis said, “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” He warned, “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading.” He cautioned, “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”

This unjust foundation creates economic conditions that are dehumanizing and depersonalizing, including long-term unemployment, a lack of social mobility, an inadequate social safety net, and a pervasive nihilism among those who are powerless in the system. The US is facing many of the problems Pope Francis is describing, in part because of how many American politicians and citizens have accepted trickle-down economics and maintain a “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system,” just as Pope Francis describes.

Their deification of the market has led them to reject the proper role of the government in regulating the market and redistributing wealth in order to promote the common good and human flourishing. They have come to believe that the market determines human rights, instead of human dignity and our common  identity as children of God, rejecting the universal destination of goods which demands that each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary to his or her full development (which Pope Francis reminds us comes before private property). As Pope Francis notes, “Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.” And this rejection often comes from those who proudly tout their membership in the Church. They wrongly think that charitable donations are a substitute for justice.

We can only hope that other American politicians, especially Catholic politicians, will listen to the wisdom the pope has to offer on economic justice. It is encouraging to hear President Obama praise the pope’s wisdom on economic inequality and see him focus on increasing economic justice in our country. But President Obama too should reflect on all that the pope is describing, particularly what it means to address global economic injustice, and even on issues where the two disagree, such as abortion. The program outlined by President Obama would be a good start toward alleviating some of the injustices described by Pope Francis, but far more is needed to achieve real progress toward the global common good. Both Republicans and Democrats who are authentically driven by Catholic teaching and motivated by Pope Francis’ vision have a great deal of work to do in reshaping the agenda of each of their political parties to more closely reflect a commitment to the common good.

Yet the initial reactions to both President Obama’s speech and Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation have not been promising. Congressional Republicans have not only rejected President Obama’s proposals, as we might expect in this era of hyperpartisanship, they have also failed to accept the basic economic realities that the President is hoping to address and that the pope has described. This is not surprising, since libertarianism has increasingly infected the party’s approach to governance.

What may have surprised some (though neither me, nor my wife, who predicted it) is the strong backlash against the pope’s words from the political right in the United States. Some have offered modest critiques, arguing the pope underestimates the benefits of capitalism and free markets and overestimates the efficacy of government action. Others have tried to twist the pope’s words to match their ideological agenda or have simply ignored the heart of his message, engaging in a more covert form of resistance.

Others, however, have harshly attacked Pope Francis, accusing him of Marxism and “ripping America.” The pope, like President Obama, is a threat to their delusions and designs—to their imagined vision of what America was, distorted vision of what it is, and disturbing vision of what is should be.

While these free market absolutists are incorrectly describing the pope’s mentality and message, they are right to recognize the fundamental incompatibility of economic libertarianism and the pope’s vision. Catholic teaching cannot be reconciled with a utopian faith in the market (or even a partial faith in the deifying myths of the market). The critics’ indifference to disturbing levels of economic inequality and injustice cannot coexist with an informed conscience. There is a fundamental divide that exists.

Some criticisms of the pope have exposed the myths that prevent far too many on the right, including many Catholic politicians, from embracing huge segments of Catholic teaching, particularly when it comes to economic and social justice.

Some critics of the pope have described a fanciful fairy tale in which unfettered capitalism in the US produced robust economic growth and falling levels of poverty, all thanks to the free market’s freedom from government. In his speech, President Obama described the various government actions throughout American history—from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson—that actually allowed for progress in creating a larger middle class and increased opportunity and security for more Americans while reducing poverty.

Not all government action has had a positive impact, but it is nevertheless essential, as Pope Francis made perfectly clear. For some critics, economic redistribution is theft, but for Francis, as his predecessor stated even more explicitly, it is an ethical obligation. These two views cannot be reconciled. American Catholics must choose: the Catholic position or the free market fundamentalist position. Only one is the correct moral view. (And for those who accept the Catholic view, a just redistribution is required, not a minimal redistribution that leaves many behind.)

President Obama recognizes the duties that governments have in reducing unjust inequalities and other obstacles to economic justice, which is why he said that “government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts, because government is us. It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments.” President Obama spoke about “building an economy that grows for everybody.” Here we see a commitment to what Pope Francis has described as “the primacy of the human person.”

Many right-wing American politicians and pundits do not just distort the past, but are also blind to the reality of the present. They cling to the myth that the US is the most economically mobile society on the planet. President Obama described the reality:

“We’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is.”

Here we see those unjust conditions the pope has condemned. Real opportunity is absent. Hopelessness and nihilism are far too common, the results of a broken economic system. We are called to change this status quo. Fixing it requires creativity and for all of us to examine our assumptions and look beyond tired old formulas. But it all starts with admitting that there is a problem.

President Obama criticized the notion that the social safety net is acting more like a hammock. This cuts to the heart of the major political debate dividing the country. The reference is to free market fundamentalist Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-inspired budget point man for the GOP, who has led the Republican Party’s efforts to slash essential government programs that assist the most vulnerable. President Obama explained the importance of the safety net that Ryan, who is Catholic, mocked:

“Without Social Security nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty — half. Today fewer than 1 in 10 do. Before Medicare, only half of all seniors had some form of health insurance. Today virtually all do. And because we’ve strengthened that safety net and expanded pro-work and pro- family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s.”

Paul Ryan is hoping to repair his image, which was badly damaged in the 2012 campaign by his serial dishonesty and plutocratic mentality. His well-cultivated image of seriousness and sincerity evaporated, as the real Paul Ryan was exposed.

Instead of pushing his old preferences and trying to repackage these once again, as he did when adopted the language of subsidiarity (a concept he completely distorted) and cherry-picked statements from previous popes, Paul Ryan would be well served to look at the facts described by President Obama and the vision outlined by Pope Francis. He can side with the pope’s critics or accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. He can’t do both.

This is the choice faced by countless Catholic Republicans and conservatives. We can only hope that some will read Evangelli Gaudium and side with the pope over Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps then we might see the beginning of an extraordinary change in American politics—the emergence of a compassionate conservatism that rejects free market fundamentalism and anti-government libertarianism in favor of a commitment to government action to reduce economic inequality, increase social mobility, and achieve greater economic justice and the common good.

We need a better Republican party for the sake of the common good. We need one that is serious about addressing poverty and economic injustice. We need to see one that more closely resembles the Christian Democratic parties of the center-right that have been influenced by the Church’s personalism.

Will this change occur among those elected in Congress today? It will not. It may require changes to the way campaigns are financed, districts are drawn, and who can vote in party primaries. But ultimately it requires an emerging grassroots of Catholics (and others) who are committed to the common good and transforming their party. I hope that some millennials will embrace Pope Francis’ message and take up this challenge.

Those of us in the Democratic Party too must make sure that we have not been seduced by the status quo assumptions of our party or the libertarianism of the left. Catholics in the Democratic Party must make sure that the party’s focus on the middle class does not mean a neglect of the poor. It’s not enough to just oppose draconian cuts to essential programs; a positive agenda that allows everyone to reach their full potential as persons is also required. Both the government and civil society need to find ways to empower those who have been excluded from authentic participation in our economy and society by structural injustice. Spending more on programs that already exist will not be enough; an innovative, progressive agenda is required.

And Democrats must recognize that increasing social mobility and opportunity, along with reducing poverty and economic inequality, require not only changes in our government’s economic policies, but also changes in our personal behavior and the strength of our nation’s families. Economic injustice leads to family breakdown, but family breakdown also brings economic maladies in its wake. What is needed is a pro-family agenda, which includes efforts to reduce the economic burden on struggling families.

Finally, Catholic Democrats need to press the party to commit to protecting the most vulnerable people on the planet, from unborn children to those living in desperate poverty abroad to those threatened by the specter of mass atrocities. Increasing American efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals would be an excellent step.

Pope Francis challenges all of us to examine ourselves as persons, and this requires each and every one of us to examine ourselves as citizens and political actors. It is time to take up that challenge.