During his much anticipated trip to the United States, Pope Francis discussed several key issues of political and moral import, and each in a way that has managed to ruffle feathers all across the ideological spectrum. From climate change to religious liberty, income inequality to the protection of life, he has unabashedly inserted himself into American political discourse, having created a dialogue in which even protestant stalwarts like myself must participate.
But in terms of Francis’ positions on economics, it is important first to remember what Fox News’ Father Jonathan Morris has been reminding us over the past week or so: not only was Francis born and raised in Argentina, a country with a tradition of South-American socialism and anti-capitalist sentiment, but he was also a witness of the horrendous Dirty War, a period of dehumanization, crony capitalism, and government abuse of political dissidents and the poor. This undoubtedly shaded Pope’s Francis’s views of capitalism, and could be the source of his skepticism about the effects free markets have on economic inequality.
There do, however, seem to be some areas in which conservatives and Pope Francis can find common ground. When thinking about poverty, for example, conservatives tend to take into account many factors that Francis appreciates and that progressives ignore; instead of throwing money at schools or various welfare programs, conservatives focus on the importance of two-parent households, and prefer to empower communities to take care of themselves rather than waiting for government to do the job for them.
As a champion of the nuclear family, this is certainly a tendency that Francis might support — to address environmental causes of poverty in addition to the cold calculations of left-leaning technocrats. In addition, when Francis speaks of Christ-like charity and neighborliness, he certainly doesn’t mean for us to think that our interpersonal duties begin and end on April 15th.
In a larger sense, the area in which Pope Francis really needs some tender advice is that of income inequality, a reality against which he has campaigned extensively in Rome and during his travels. Sure, Francis is not an economist, and his assertions on that subject do not come across as pedantic or scornful, but it is important for him to remember that when he speaks on an issue in front of Congress, President Obama, the UN, and the American people at large, he does so with the authority of one of the world’s most important institutions. In other words, he ought to be a bit more mindful of the fact that the Bible has little to say about esoteric economic theory, that as the Pontiff of Rome, his job is not to rekindle the bitter debates in which followers of Hayek and followers of Keynes routinely engage.
On the substance of the matter, anyway, it is really quite absurd for Francis to treat income inequality as some scourge to be chased and beaten into submission with feckless public policy and meaningless political rhetoric. The issue is not (and never has been) that some people make more money than others — indeed, such is to be expected in a society in which individuals are free to employ resources in unique ways — but rather that certain people need help, and that there are ways of providing assistance that are both practical and generous.
All of which is to ask basically: So what if Joe from Alabama makes loads less than Bill from Seattle? What matters is how Joe lives in comparison to how he and others like him used to live twenty years ago.
But I digress. As much as Pope Francis may bother conservatives with his somewhat crude views on matters of economics, it is more important to take into consideration his most positive qualities: his ability to invigorate crowds for the Church, his ability to demonstrate Christ’s passion and humility, and, perhaps most precious of all, his ability to leave wide smiles on the faces of children whom he has lovingly blessed.