Pope Francis hates trickle-down economics, but he isn't a liberal

The pope's first manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium, confirms a pontiff at home with Occupy Wall Street. With some big caveats.

Pope Francis
(Image credit: (Franco Origlia/Getty Images))

Two days before Thanksgiving, Pope Francis gave liberal Catholics plenty to be grateful for. On Tuesday, the pope released his first official papal manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), a 224-page apostolic exhortation laying out his vision of where the Catholic Church should be headed.

Much of the document focuses on pastoral issues and guidance for dioceses and parishes that won't be of much interest to many non-Catholics — though Catholics with boring parish priests will enjoy the pope's wry observation that many churchgoers "and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: The laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!" The pope also proposes a much more decentralized global Catholic Church.

But as an economic mission statement, Evangelii Gaudium places the pope — as Vatican watcher Rev. Thomas Reese predicted in March — "to the left of Nancy Pelosi." In his decidedly populist document, Pope Francis specifically criticizes the economic "trickle-down theories" that were the beating heart of Ronald Reagan's anti-tax, anti-regulation revolution.

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The part of the document that is grabbing most of the attention starts with Section 53, in the chapter on "the crisis of communal commitment." With his caveat that "it is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality," Francis begins his economic critique like this:

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. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? [Evangelii Gaudium]

And here are some other eye-catching observations from the pope:

  • "Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.... Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded."
  • "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."
  • "While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control."
  • "The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule."

Pope Francis's exhortations to say no to an "economy of exclusion," the "new idolatry of money," and "a financial system which rules rather than serves" would fit seamlessly in a "mic check" speech at Occupy Wall Street. He softens the blow a little at the end: "The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor."

But Francis isn't talking only to the super-wealthy. Most Americans probably don't fit into the Argentine pope's definition of the poor. This hits a little close to home:

Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. [Evangelii Gaudium]

Still, as Slate's Matthew Yglesias notes, the papal manifesto as a whole "really lights into libertarian economics." He adds that he's heard "a number of conservative Catholic commentators remark numerous times that it's silly for left-wing people to be highlighting Pope Francis's thoughts on economic policy because all this stuff has been Catholic doctrine for a long time." But that misses the point, Yglesias concludes: "When you have a corpus of thinking and tradition that spans centuries, it makes a great deal of difference what you emphasize."

This is the Francis that Fordham University's Charles Camosy wrote about in The Washington Post in March, a pope who "would likely be considered too liberal for a prime-time speaking slot at the 2016 DNC convention." But Evangelii Gaudium includes other pronouncements that would probably exclude this pope from appearing onstage at the Democratic National Convention, too.

"After months in which many have parsed his comments for hints of change, the pope used the document to reiterate church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women," say Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo at The New York Times. Allowing women to become priests "is not a question open to discussion," Pope Francis wrote, and he suggested that the Catholic Church not accede to the "moral relativism" of gay marriage. And here's what the pope has to say about abortion:

I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or "modernizations." It is not "progressive" to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations? [Evangelii Gaudium]

Pope Francis isn't a liberal in the American sense of the world, and he's not a conservative either. He's an especially down-to-earth, pastoral, media-savvy leader of the Roman Catholic Church. This manifesto lays out his priorities in a way unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, would have. That's a welcome change. But both popes stayed within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy: Yes to serving the poor; no to abortion.

To paraphrase the old joke: Is this pope Catholic? Yes. But he sure doesn't like Reaganomics.

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