Thursday, December 19, 2013

Comparing papal quotes on economics

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt, 1637 (Acquired from Wikimedia Commons)

Recently, Pope Francis again acquired media attention with his statements in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:
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? ... Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. (#53)

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. (#56)
Some commentators equated his comments with Marxism, interpreting him as one handing complete control of the markets to a government entity. Pope Francis, when later asked in an interview with La Stampa what he thought of being called a Marxist and about an economy that kills replied:
The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended. ... The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.
Focusing on these quotes, you have two principles flowing from Francis: 1) That something is wrong with the world's current economic systems because the gap between the wealthy and poor continues to expand (Recent studies have asserted that the income gap is at its worst in 100 years); 2) a Marxist approach is not the answer.

I'd like to look at several other papal quotes expressing similar sentiments. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of popes or even of quotes from each pope included, but at least a decent sample.

We begin with quotes echoing concern about the wealth-gap phenomenon.
In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class... The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Norum, 1891, #3)
To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice. (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, #58)
Pius XI was not unaware of the fact that in the forty years that had supervened since the publication of the Leonine encyclical the historical scene had altered considerably. It was clear, for example, that unregulated competition had succumbed to its own inherent tendencies to the point of practically destroying itself. It had given rise to a great accumulation of wealth, and, in the process, concentrated a despotic economic power in the hands of a few "who for the most part are not the owners, but only the trustees and directors of invested funds, which they administer at their own good pleasure." (Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 1961, #35)
One must avoid the risk of increasing still more the wealth of the rich and the dominion of the strong, whilst leaving the poor in their misery and adding to the servitude of the oppressed. (Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressivo, 1967, #33) 
In this world crisis, more than two-thirds of the population are suffering from hunger, and the contrast in the standard of living between the rich and the economically poor countries is becoming greater. (Pope Pius XII, Guiding Principles of the Lay Apostolate, 1957, #14)
Our world also shows increasing evidence of another grave threat to peace: many individuals and indeed whole peoples are living today in conditions of extreme poverty. The gap between rich and poor has become more marked, even in the most economically developed nations. This is a problem which the conscience of humanity cannot ignore, since the conditions in which a great number of people are living are an insult to their innate dignity and as a result are a threat to the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community. (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Peace, 2009, #1)
Notice how un-novel is Pope Francis' concern about the disparity of wealth among persons. Notice also how human dignity is emphasized, especially if you click the links for each quote and read additional context.

As noted in the opening quotes by Pope Francis, although markets have often resulted in lop-sided distribution of wealth, the Church's idea of seeking a just wage for all is not some type of governmental usurpation of the market. Pope Francis denied the Marxist ideology. And every other Pope quoted above likewise shied away from a strictly government-controlled or socialistic market.
To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community. (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891, #4)
Because of the fact that goods are produced more efficiently by a suitable division of labor than by the scattered efforts of individuals, socialists infer that economic activity, only the material ends of which enter into their thinking, ought of necessity to be carried on socially. ...[T]he higher goods of man, liberty not excepted, must take a secondary place and even be sacrificed to the demands of the most efficient production of goods. This damage to human dignity, undergone in the "socialized" process of production, will be easily offset, they say, by the abundance of socially produced goods which will pour out in profusion to individuals to be used freely at their pleasure for comforts and cultural development. Society, therefore, as Socialism conceives it, can on the one hand neither exist nor be thought of without an obviously excessive use of force; on the other hand, it fosters a liberty no less false, since there is no place in it for true social authority, which rests not on temporal and material advantages but descends from God alone, the Creator and last end of all things. If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist. (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, #119-120)
Whilst the propaganda of communism, today so widespread, is readily deceiving the minds of the simple and untutored … [ B]y subjecting everything to state ownership and control, they reduce the dignity of the human person almost to zero. ... The Church has condemned the various forms of Marxist Socialism; and she condemns them again today, because it is her permanent right and duty to safeguard men from fallacious arguments and subversive influence that jeopardize their eternal salvation. … The dignity of the human person then, speaking generally, requires as a natural foundation of life the right to the use of the goods of the earth. To this right corresponds the fundamental obligation to grant private ownership of property, if possible, to all. Positive legislation, regulating private ownership may change and more or less restrict its use. But if legislation is to play its part in the pacification of the community, it must see to it that the worker, who is or will be the father of a family, is not condemned to an economic dependence and servitude which is irreconcilable with his rights as a person. (52) (Pope Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones, 1951, #49, 52)
While, through the concrete existing form of Marxism, one can distinguish these various aspects and the questions they pose for the reflection and activity of Christians, it would be illusory and dangerous to reach a point of forgetting the intimate link which radically binds them together, to accept the elements of Marxist analysis without recognizing their relationships with ideology, and to enter into the practice of class struggle and its Marxist interpretations, while failing to note the kind of totalitarian and violent society to which this process leads. (Pope Paul VI, Octagesima Adveniens, 1971, #34) 
Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity, and made it clear that no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. ... Thus Pius XI's teaching in this encyclical can be summed up under two heads. First he taught what the supreme criterion in economic matters ought not to be. It must not be the special interests of individuals or groups, nor unregulated competition, economic despotism, national prestige or imperialism, nor any other aim of this sort. On the contrary, all forms of economic enterprise must be governed by the principles of social justice and charity. (Pope John XIII, Mater et Magistra, 1961, #34, 38-39)
[W]e have to add that the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. ... A person who is deprived of something he can call "his own", and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community. ... The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. ... Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business. (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #13, 35)
While it has been rightly emphasized that increasing per capita income cannot be the ultimate goal of political and economic activity, it is still an important means of attaining the objective of the fight against hunger and absolute poverty. Hence, the illusion that a policy of mere redistribution of existing wealth can definitively resolve the problem must be set aside. In a modern economy, the value of assets is utterly dependent on the capacity to generate revenue in the present and the future. Wealth creation therefore becomes an inescapable duty, which must be kept in mind if the fight against material poverty is to be effective in the long term. (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Day of Peace, 2009, #11) 
You can see the pattern among these citations recognize both the folly of socialist or communist ideologies which strip human beings of their proper dignity in favor of a collective State. You also see the recognition of legitimate commerce and wealth creation have a place in a just economic system. Each of these Popes have an emphasis in their writings on the dignity of a human person. It is this which rises above all other considerations, be they profits or prudent state regulations. The human person must be seen as the most valuable asset in the equation ahead of the rest.

In the La Stampa interview, Pope Francis said of his exhortation, "There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church." Just as he referred listeners to the Catechism when speaking on marriage, he is referring listeners to the Church's precedent on social doctrine. He thus should be read in concert with the heritage of his predecessors. This can help one see why being critical of a de-humanizing attribute of capitalism, such as commoditizing employees, is not automatically tantamount to proposing some communist, socialist, or Marxist solution. Rather, the human being must be held paramount when considering whatever economic system or adjustments may come.


  1. This is a brave attempt at reconciling the Pope's words, but it is fundamentally flawed. It compares decades (even centuries) between quotes. Think of the immense, wonderful, extraordinary expansion of well-being in the world from 1957 to 2014. How could you compare the two?

    Note also that the precursor to most of your quotes point to the devastating state of physical hunger or deprivationsoin the prior quotes:
    such as this:

    ...more than two-thirds of the population are suffering from hunger...
    and this:
    "..some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class"

    and this:
    "whilst leaving the poor in their misery and adding to the servitude of the oppressed. "

    The point that our current Pope has missed is that the world is immensely better off today than it was in 1861 and 1957 and 1967 and even 1997 and 2007!

    It is as if this Pope has been living under a rock and has no knowledge that for the first time in human history, billions of people have been raised out of abject poverty and starvation because of the freedom and flexibility of a system as close to capitalism as has ever existed on earth.

    Either you have to believe the Pope is stupid (no one I know believes this) or you have to believe the Pope has deliberately and completely missed the truth of our time since around 1980.

    Why would he do this? No one seems to know the answer.

    To be sure there are economies -- Africa, some (but now less and less) parts of Asia, are still suffering -- but expanding tremendously. And at the same time, for most of the western world (that includes BILLIONS of people) OBESITY is one of the great plagues of youth. Electricity, running water, even air conditioning serve more people now than ever imagined even 20 years ago.

    Why ignore this? Why not point out that we need MORE of it? Why not encourage capitalism?

    This is the problem with THIS Pope's words. If, as the article above implies, the issue is NOT the fundamental inhumanity where the poor live, but is instead simply about the gap between rich and poor -- than one could solve the gap by lowering ALL income levels.

    Consider two individuals: One makes $1million and one makes $100,000. Now destroy the world's economy so that one makes $10 and one makes $1. The differences in income in the first case is staggering: $900,000! The difference in the second is negligible: $9.

    Yet the second case is the case where income disparity is BETTER.

    Who would want that? Surely not this Pope and not any rational person.

    On the other hand, suppose that the richest $1million person got $2million and the poorer person's income rose to $200,000.

    Again, in terms of income disparity this is WORSE by every single measure! Yet, both are 2x better off!

    1. This Pope's particular call seems to be toward the poor. It doesn't mean he would ignore unhealthy eating or something. A person could walk and chew gum at the same time. But coming from where he did, his emphasis is on the poor. It's not an unworthy cause, even if people "in general" are "better off" than in 1861. Also, I don't think the Pope said anywhere that the solution to the income gap is to shrink everyone's income. If you have that citation, I am willing to read it. You may also find of interest my prior article comparing Pope Francis and Andrew Carnegie. Both men seem to at least take the approach that the wealthy may freely give to those in need, or at least, like Carnegie, create avenues with uplift large groups. The Pope's mantra in Evangelii Gaudium was a call to godliness in the markets.

    2. I was thinking that the Pope's words were towards the rich and those in economic power.

      If he meant it for the poor, I don't quite understand why he thought the poor "wielded economic power" and why he chose to criticise them?

      If, on the other hand as I suspect, the Pope actually was writing to the rich, who wield economic power, then why would he presume the ONLY people they wield economic power to is over the poor?

      I myself am a business owner. I am one of the few who "wield economic power" over others. Why would this Pope presume to tell the world I exercise this power without regard to the poor?

      Also, if you are correct, and in general, he is writing for the "poor" -- who are they? I have neighbors who live in homes over $150,000 and they think they are poor. I have been to many 3rd world countries where people live in shacks and don't think they are poor because they have electricity and plumbing.

      Again, you are putting up a brave front -- and all of us -- at least the good catholics I know -- want nothing but success for this Pope.

      But we are not ignorant. We are neither ignorant of the current poor or the immense, billion plus, who have come out of abject poverty because (mostly) the ideas of free enterprise.

      Regarding your last point -- about income inequality -- note those are the Pope's word choice, not mine. My point is that by choosing "income inequality" rather than abject poverty -- the Pope has created two solution options--- raise the lowest incomes or lower the highest incomes. Again, he chose the subject, no myself.

      If he had more wisely chosen to address abject poverty, then the solution is more and more freedom/capitalism. But he seems to believe, contrary to nearly every fact and statistic in modern economic history -- that the "spill-over" or "trickle-down" miracle of economic growth has not only never been proven by the facts (again, contrary to modern history in China, India, Canada, Australia, The USA, Mexico, Indonesia, etc) but that one must be completely a fool to believe it to be true.

      And this is from our Pope?

      He really has completely astounded most of us with this miss.

      The fact that other Pope's have spoken of poverty is wonderful. The fact that this Pope has spoken about poverty is wonderful.

      The fact that his Pope has completely ignored modern history in some sort of reach to make some point -- only the Pope seems to know what that point is -- is crazy.

    3. Sorry, my wording was not clear. I didn't mean the document was addressed "to the poor" but that the topic related "to the poor" and how in a world of abundant resources there remains such profound poverty and wealth extremes. But anyway, I won't go on a defense of the trickle-down part of the document. The entire purpose of Pope Francis' thesis, seemed to me, to be a godliness that can be absent even in corporate arenas. Where profit--at the expense of--human persons is the goal. When he explained what kind of mentality he meant as a comparison, he referred to life in the womb, where the child is seen as a commodity. So if you are an ethical business owner, you have nothing to worry about. But certainly, there are corporations that practice unethics, treat the worker as the first means to cut spending, or even deceive their target markets. This occurs in international businesses. Of course, the black markets would fit his reference to the "absolute autonomy" he mentioned, although I can't say which markets he had in mind when he wrote it, and yet he does go on about "human trafficking" at times. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, and keep up good work in your business. :)

    4. I understands your view. However, I disagree with your overly-generous assumptions, but I understand your point.

      Let me be clear: It is a very, very dangerous position for the Pope to speak is such broad, unequivocal terms of business and economics and capitalism if all he meant to do was speak about a very small fraction of business managers who are not ethical.

      I'm reminded of the MANY secular speakers who speak of "priests" as pedophiles, without clarifying that the actual percentages of priests who fit that description is in the sub-2% level. By their language -- you would think ALL priests are pedophiles. I fight that kind of misrepresentations by secular speakers, and I will continue to fight the Pope's misrepresentations by his lack of specificity as well.

      I have been in business for decades and in all that time I have met maybe one -- yes only one -- business manager who was unethical. I have done business in the USA, almost all parts of Latin America, Europe, China, Japan, Korea and Australia.

      Now, have some business managers made unethical decisions rarely in their working lives -- choosing option A for selfish or greedy reasons instead of option B, the more honest/ethical option? Sure. But that is the nature of man.

      If the Pope means to say that being in business exposes you to the risk of sinfulness, well then he ought to point out the same is true for teaching, government, religious, non-profit and just about EVERY single other part of life.

      I really do respect your attempt to "protect" or "explain" the Pope's words. But I don't understand why we as Catholics, especially given the obligations we have to expose errors or weaknesses in our clergy -- why we don't simply say: The Pope said the wrong thing. He is clearly wrong in his assumptions. He is clearly wrong in how he said it. He has clearly not attempted to correct his inappropriate language.

      Let's hold this Pope accountable for errors. Let's LOVE how generous and kind and loving he is -- let us celebrate what he has already brought to the church.

      But why be so fearful of correcting that which is not just wrong, but completely and totally wrong. Whether it is the "translation" or the choice of words (as others say) or the actual belief of the Pope that business managers are unethical in the whole, versus an incredibly small share of them who are, we ought to be able to simply tell him he is wrong and ask him to be more clear and specific so that his credibility and the church's is not harmed.

    5. I will leave your comment stand as is, as a reasoned Catholic response. Thanks again for dropping in!