In a recent segment on his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh talked about the pope’s new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. I don’t have the space to address everything Limbaugh said, but what struck me was his mischaracterization of Pope Francis's comments about economics.
The fundamental problem was that Limbaugh chose to quote not what Pope Francis wrote but a Washington Post article on the exhortation, which stated:
Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny" and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality, in a document on Tuesday setting out a platform for his papacy and calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church. . . . In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the "idolatry of money."
Limbaugh responded by saying, “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere. 'Unfettered capitalism' is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.”
Granted, it takes hours to read this massive document but, for someone whose words are heard by millions of people, before calling the pope a "Marxist" a simple use of the control+F function would have been warranted. If Limbaugh had done that, he would have found that the phrase “unfettered capitalism” does not appear in Evangelii Gaudium.
Neither is the global economy the main theme of this exhortation; rather, it's only one area where Pope Francis is calling on the Church to evangelize the world. He describes specific financial and cultural challenges facing the human community and then addresses the temptations of pastors who must face these challenges. Nowhere does the Pope blame humanity’s woes on the concept of the free market or demand a Marxist government to save mankind.
A Betrayal of John Paul II?
Limbaugh later said, “[J]uxtaposed against the actions of Pope John Paul II, this pope and the things that he released yesterday or recently are really striking.”
No, they aren’t. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II reflected on socialism and capitalism in light of the recent fall of the Soviet Union. Although he acknowledged that profit has a “legitimate role” in the function of a business and that “the Marxist solution” to economic inequality had failed, he also spoke of the “inadequacies of capitalism” and said that profit is the not the only indicator that a business is doing well. The human dignity of workers matter too, and if capitalism is left unchecked it becomes “ruthless” and leads to “inhuman exploitation.” Pope Francis's words are consistent with John Paul's.
You talk about unfettered, this is an unfettered anti-capitalist dictate from Pope Francis. And listen to this. This is an actual quote from what he wrote. "The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle. They fail to move us." I mean, that's pretty profound. That's going way beyond matters that are ethical. This is almost a statement about who should control financial markets. He says that the global economy needs government control.
But the Pope is not saying that. He is saying that a global economy needs global control, not government control in the form of some creepy one-world government that runs everything. Pope Francis said, “If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation [emphasis added], ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few (206).”
A Complex Question
The Church teaches that the dignity of the human person and the management of global economies is more complex than just choosing "capitalism" over "socialism/communism." What is required is an approach that respects individual freedom without allowing that freedom to become some all-consuming monster that tramples the weak and poor.
In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II was asked if capitalism should be the dominant economic model in light of the fall of the USSR. His answer is insightful, and I think it's an excellent parallel to Pope Francis's attitude on the subject. Pope John Paul II said:
The answer is obviously complex. If by "capitalism" is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a "business economy," "market economy" or simply "free economy." But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
The reality is that the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis included, cannot simply say it is for or against capitalism. It’s a complex question. While the Washington Post said Pope Francis issued a “decidedly populist teaching” the Pope said in Evangelii Gaudium that he was not arguing for “an irresponsible populism,” or a solution that naively pits the poor against the rich (204).
On the other hand, while the Pope might agree with Limbaugh that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” can lift some people out of poverty, it can also strangle the life out of the poor, and so the Pope says in that same paragraph that we can no longer trust the market alone to ensure that all people are treated with dignity.
In closing, I think that the following paragraph from the Pope’s exhortation is something that should be mailed to Limbaugh and maybe we can turn down the heat just a little bit:
If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth (208).