Andrew M. Haines

Andrew M. Haines is the Editor of Ethika Politika and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

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Pope Benedict Defends Francis on Markets and Ethics

By | December 16, 2013

Pope Francis commented recently on accusations of Marxism stemming from anti-market language employed in Evangelii Gaudium. Unfortunately overshadowed by his new status as TIME’s Person of the Year (apparently one of the few things that trumps a papal interview these days), the remarks are concise and support the reading  of EG offered here, here, and here.

When asked about criticism by “ultraconservatives in the USA” who called him a Marxist, Francis 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.

[. . .] There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. 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 [sic] 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.

Also overlooked amidst the fallout from Evangelii Gaudium was a statement by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, which defended not only Francis’s remarks in EG, but also their specific context, as as well as the greater role of the Church vis-à-vis economics and morality. In his own release, Benedict wrote:

In order to find solutions that will truly lead us forward, new economic ideas will be necessary. But such measures do not seem conceivable or, above all, practicable without new moral impulses. It is at this point that a dialogue between Church and economy becomes both possible and necessary.

Let me clarify somewhat the exact point in question. At first glance, precisely in terms of classical economic theory, it is not obvious what the Church and the economy should actually have to do with one another, aside from the fact that the Church owns businesses and so is a factor in the market. The Church should not enter into dialogue here as a mere component in the economy, but rather in its own right as Church.

Benedict went on to castigate Smithian economics, in particular—a system where “voluntary ‘moral’ actions contradict market rules and drive the moralizing entrepreneur out of the game”—as a culprit against which the Church must align:

The great successes of this theory concealed its limitations for a long time. But now in a changed situation, its tacit philosophical presuppositions and thus its problems become clearer. Although this position admits the freedom of individual businessmen, and to that extent can be called liberal, it is in fact deterministic in its core. It presupposes that the free play of market forces can operate in one direction only, given the constitution of man and the world, namely, toward the self-regulation of supply and demand, and toward economic efficiency and progress.

As Francis remarked, however, “Marxist ideology is wrong,” too. And Benedict pulled no punches in backing this claim, as well.

In terms of the structure of its economic theory and praxis, the Marxist system as a centrally administered economy is a radical antithesis to the market economy. Salvation is expected because there is no private control of the means of production, because supply and demand are not brought into harmony through market competition, because there is no place for private profit seeking, and because all regulations proceed from a central economic administration. Yet, in spite of this radical opposition in the concrete economic mechanisms, there are also points in common in the deeper philosophical presuppositions. The first of these consists in the fact that Marxism, too, is deterministic in nature and that it too promises a perfect liberation as the fruit of this determinism. For this reason, it is a fundamental error to suppose that a centralized economic system is a moral system in contrast to the mechanistic system of the market economy. This becomes clearly visible, for example, in Lenin’s acceptance of Sombart’s thesis that there is in Marxism no grain of ethics, but only economic laws.

It’s apparent, here, that Benedict was referring, at least in part, to claims made in paragraph 57 of Evangelii Gaudium, which reads:

Behind [the thirst for power and possessions] lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.

Driving home his defense—and frankly, his more pointed rendition—of Francis’s economic critiques in EG, Benedict noted:

[W]e can no longer regard so naively the liberal-capitalistic system (even with all the corrections it has since received) as the salvation of the world. We are no longer in the Kennedy-era, with its Peace Corps optimism; the Third World’s questions about the system may be partial, but they are not groundless. A self-criticism of the Christian confessions with respect to political and economic ethics is the first requirement.

It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse. An economic policy that is ordered not only to the good of the group – indeed, not only to the common good of a determinate state – but to the common good of the family of man demands a maximum of ethical discipline and thus a maximum of religious strength. The political formation of a will that employs the inherent economic laws towards this goal appears, in spite of all humanitarian protestations, almost impossible today. It can only be realized if new ethical powers are completely set free. A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.

As unprecedented as such a lengthy defense of a reigning pope by a former pope may be, probably the most uncanny feature is the exact timing of Benedict’s statement, which came in November of 1985—nearly thirty years before the publication of Evangelii Gaudium.

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  • Matt

    Well that was … misleading.

  • e.harland-hazebroek

    It is clear that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis talk about the same way we have to go for a better world, understanding that all the world gives us is made for all as a normal right. Possession is not for a group but for all to live a normal life and give the children from any country the right to build up a life, and having the freedom to follow their faith.

  • jvc

    Bizarre.

  • James1

    @Matt, re: “Well that was … misleading.”

    Well, not really, if we consider that the Church and her teachings are timeless!

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Actually, it was a little misleading – but very enlightening, too, and I’m glad this information got posted. It was misleading because the lede gave us to believe that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI weighed in on the controversy, which is probably a US-localized phenomenon instigated by people who did not look into the topic before sounding off. It was enlightening because these comments by Cardinal Ratzinger are very eloquent and instructive. And, although not magisterial but academic, the thoughts expressed are very consistent with magisterial texts on the subject since Rerum Novarum in 1891 (as I have shown on my blog).

  • dan

    I don’t think its misleading at all. As a conservative what I glean from both Francis and Benedict is that any economic system, devoid of moral/ethical agents, will cause harm and not work well for large portions of the society. In other words capitalism that is atheistic is just as bad as atheistic Marxism. And that the Church is that moral agent which is separate and above the economic system.

  • Jknee

    The missing element is the declining strength of the extended family networks human beings evolved with until modern times, since individualism of the voter and consumer has been the paramount concern both in economics and politics. The Church has emphasized the common good enough already, since the 19th century’s labor rights movement began. The common good is also a concern of Marxism, to the detriment of individuals and families. Capitalism made no promises of a utopian happy ending, like Marx did, but merely assumes a free market will self-regulate itself — if it were ever “unfettered” in the last 100 years.
    The popes mistakenly say today’s free markets are truly free, when they’ve been politically regulated for a century now. Regulated supposedly for the “common good” but really for a mediocre balance of political special interests with freedoms kept in check.
    The Church today should forget about a “common good” strategy and renew their longstanding defense of the extended family — not just nuclear families– who’ve always self-regulated themselves on family farms and businesses, seeing children as essential to the family’s future survival but has been in decline since secular social safety nets have taken over for the individual citizens (undermining the family as a result). Hopefully the Synod on the Family will cover this matter.

  • Jared B.

    Except that “a morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws” is apt description of almost everything Pope Francis / Cardinal Bergoglio has ever said on economic topics, up to and including EG.

  • John Schuh

    Built into modern economic thinking, whether that of Marx and Engels or classical liberals such as John Stuart Mills, is the notion of “economic man,” which is a distortion of the concept of man as understood by the humanists,as well as Christians. Further, it even departs from what modern biology teaches us about mankind, arguing that men and women have no meaningful differences but may be thrust into the same economic roles without prejudice to their sexual natures.

  • Robb Redman

    The classical liberal tradition (Smith to Hayek and Popper) is undoubtedly more congenial to the orthodox Christian social ethics than Marxism, but that is a relative comparison, not an absolute one. They are both fallen; Christians live under both (and their variants) and require theological and moral guidance that encourages them to engage their societies redemptively through their communities and callings. This I take to be the main thrust of EG.

  • Michael D’Emic

    The only problem I see with all of this is that it is not what the Pope actually wrote in the Evangelii Gaudium. A careful reading of paragraphs 53 to 58 and 202 to 208 makes it perfectly clear that he considers ‘the prevailing economic system’, i.e., the free market (heavily regulated as it is universally) to be fundamentally unjust. Others, such as Gregg and Sirico, have pointed out the ‘systemic’ problems with this stance. More troubling, perhaps, is what the Pope’s actual words imply about the individual moral response of businessmen and women. Does the fact that they work under the ‘laws of competition’ (para. 53) and are motivated by profit (which they must be to survive in business and earn a living) imply that they ‘are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality’ and need ‘to be freed from those unworthy chains’ (para. 208)? To call the Pope a ‘Marxist’ is clearly stupid. His anti-market bias, which is unmistakeable, has a long lineage in Catholic social teaching, and just maybe it is this that is the problem. The (relatively) free market is not the invention of Adam Smith or Fritz Hayek or anyone else. It has been with us since we lost Paradise, and it is not going away any time soon (for which read The Second Coming). EG or no EG, on November 25th it was business as usual on the world markets. Maybe it is time for Catholic social teaching to take another look at itself and tell us what we should be doing differently .

  • John Carter

    If the “relatively” free market has been with us from the Fall, I would suggest that making a virtue of necessity is making an idol.

  • http://psywww.com Russ Dewey

    What jumped out at me (because it was 180 degrees wrong IMHO) was this statement:

    “development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions.”

    I observe the exact opposite in America. Atheists and “spiritual but not religious” types are more socially generous than conservative religious folks and, by a large margin, are more in favor of policies promoting the common good (food stamps, raising the minimum wage, progressive taxation, etc.). Religious conservatives and fundamentalists are aligned with powerful forces like the Koch brothers and Club for Growth who favor dog-eat-dog economic policies and unlimited expansion of the wealth gap in favor of the very rich and big corporations.

    We could debate how this came to be, and whether it will persist, but it is very much the case today. I also see a sure-footed ethical and moral intuition in the writings of such despised atheist figures as Dawkins and Sam Harris, partly because they are always confronting the stereotype that atheists cannot be moral people. They (and many other non-religious people) are thoughtful and deep and consistent when they discuss morality and ethics. You could say it is due to rational consideration of what benefits humanity, or a moral intuition, but it is not coming from a devotion to supernatural beliefs.

  • Geoff

    Russ, atheistic liberals are very generous with other people’s money. With their own, not so much. Look up the book “Who Really Cares?”

    And that is an apt description of my feeling towards Rome’s views of economics. As a Protestant, I’m still waiting for them to get justification right.

  • http://www.steveskojec.com Steve Skojec

    What is misleading about this is that it is a speech given by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 – not a defense of EG. The full text is here:

    http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/209788?eng=y

    Do you really think the good pope emeritus would break his self-imposed silence to defend EG? I think if he was going to do it for anything, it would be for something far more worthwhile than that.

  • http://www.steveskojec.com Steve Skojec

    Having just now re-read this, I see that you dispensed with the farce in the closing paragraph. Not the most impressive display of intellectual honesty. There are people out there thinking that this is current, which is how I came across this post. Someone sent it to me.

  • Chase

    The point is that the market won’t fix morality (in fact it may do the opposite). At best, an increased emphasis on morality will improve the market. Economic issues are, perhaps, more socially-based than we think. And that’s certainly not Marxist.