One of the most encouraging things about Pope Francis’ papacy has been his widespread support across partisan and ideological lines. The public has embraced the Holy Father in an extraordinary way. Yet this is not matched at the level of political and media elites. While some right-wing Catholics distort Pope Francis’ words, telling us “what he really meant” or explaining how he is talking about a different type of capitalism than the one found in the US, others have directly rejected Pope Francis’ message on economics (and implicitly 120 years of Catholic social teaching on the matter). While Pope Francis speaks clearly and simply, making the truths of Church teaching crystal clear, proponents of an individualistic, libertarian approach to economics are fighting harder than ever to offer an alternative vision of the Church and its social teaching.
David Gibson of Religion News Service has highlighted a troubling “counterintuitive reality”:
Vocal free-market advocates are gaining traction in the Catholic Church, even as Pope Francis repeatedly condemns a capitalist system that he says is hurting the poor and increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots.
In the political world, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is both a practicing Catholic and a devotee of the libertarian icon Ayn Rand — as well as the face of GOP proposals for cutting welfare programs and taxes that have drawn fire from U.S. bishops and other church leaders.
In the media, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow is a Catholic convert who has taken to the airwaves to scold the pope on economics while pushing the kind of “trickle-down” theories that Francis has derided. On Fox News, Stuart Varney, also a Catholic, has labeled the pope’s views as “neo-socialism.”
Similarly, Catholic thinkers and pundits like Michael Novak, George Weigel and Tim Worstall have used the opinion pages of National Review, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and other outlets to defend market economics against church criticisms, or to interpret the pope’s writings in a way that makes them appear less hostile to capitalism.
Of course, Paul Ryan is trying to remake his image by leaking a conversion story and his recent interactions with poor, which are intended to prove a new-found concern for those living in poverty (which seems to undermine his past protestations that he really did care about the poor and that his preferred policies of shredding the social safety net, etc. were the best way to help the poor). If this was not done in such a disingenuous, insincere way, or if Ryan had not spent so much time explaining how his radically individualist, pro-rich policies actually aligned with Catholic teaching by distorting concepts like subsidiarity, we might have real reason to hope. But alas, Paul Ryan remains Paul Ryan—deeply dishonest and cynical, a fierce opponent of Catholic social teaching and the common good.
The only hope is that his great personal ambition will lead him to realize that his far-right policies are a serious obstacle to his presidential hopes and that this conclusion will lead him to actually propose some policies for the poor that are better than cutting food stamps for children so that their parents have greater incentives to acquire jobs that do not exist.
We will have to wait to see if his selfish ambition will produce some positive benefits. So far, he has continued to support cuts to food stamps and cutting off unemployment insurance to the long-term unemployed. He has continued to reject the Catholic belief that all people deserve life’s basic necessities because of their innate worth and dignity, instead favoring the “good poor, bad poor” moralism and excessive concern about government dependency that, as Timothy Egan notes, lead to the death of so many in Ireland:
When a million Irish died during the Great Famine of the 1850s, many in the English aristocracy said the peasants deserved to starve because their families were too big and indolent. The British baronet overseeing food relief felt that the famine was God’s judgment, and an excellent way to get rid of surplus population. His argument on relief was the same one used by Rand Paul [regarding the termination of unemployment benefits that Paul Ryan strongly supports].
“The only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring the operation to a close,” said Sir Charles Trevelyan about the relief plan at a time when 10,000 Irish a day were dropping dead from hunger.
The parallel is deeply disturbing, particularly for many of us who have been shaped by the stories of our Irish-Catholic ancestors’ suffering. This individualistic mentality, shared by Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and a disturbing number of Catholics and non-Catholics on the right, is as antithetical to the Catholic mindset as the collectivist mentality that inspired Soviet-style communism. It is completely contrary to everything Pope Francis has championed and his predecessors taught. As Morning’s Minion notes:
Since the dawn of modern Catholic social teaching, popes have been punching communism with one hand and libertarianism with the other. Catholic social teaching is simply incompatible with the basic tenets of libertarianism – the supremacy of economic freedom and individual autonomy, the virtue embedded in free exchange and market-based contracts, a government whose only role is that of referee on the sidelines.
When we see distortions of Pope Francis’ message, we should not be surprised. Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus did the same thing with Pope John Paul II, which Robert Sirico and Paul Ryan have continued to do in recent years:
A key hypothesis of this group was that John Paul II had repudiated much of prior Catholic social teaching, especially in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, which fully blessed the free market system. Of course, any honest reading of this encyclical would show that it is perfectly in accord with past teaching. Plus, if John Paul had really repudiated the past, then must also have repudiated much of his own prior writings!
These people enjoyed a great deal of success and persuaded a lot of people. They owed much of their success to a changing Catholic culture. American Catholics became more and more integrated with the dominant Protestant mindset, underpinned by a Lockean individualist spirit and a Calvinist approach to economics that elevated the virtue of individual responsibility. The generation of John A. Ryan had become the generation of Paul Ryan.
Now is the time for the Pope Francis generation. And if we intend to help Pope Francis build a better Church, one more infused by the radical love of Christ, we must eradicate the individualism and libertarianism that have infected the Church in the United States, replacing it with the personalism and communitarianism of Pope Francis and authentic Catholic teaching. It is not simply a matter of politics or economics, it is about who we are as a Church and what we believe.
We are called to dialogue, but honest dialogue requires pointing out that certain people are trying to distort and dismember Church teaching. The threat is not just to the common good, but the clarity of Church teaching and understanding of the faithful.
One side has the backing of economic elites and a network of institutions to promote their agenda. The other side has over a century of encyclicals, the Gospel, and the Person of the Year. I like Pope Francis’ odds.