The usual suspects have emerged, picking up the disjointed pieces of Francis’s latest, Evangelii Gaudium, and hurling them toward each other. The truth will prevail in due course as it tends to do. For my part, I offer some simple, clarifying propositions for those not yet fully ensconced for the mêlée. (If you are, you can skip to the next item on your newsfeed.)
To begin, I wonder what “unfettered capitalism” really looks like. The pope doesn’t use this term exactly, but the idea is captured: he blames the rift between rich and poor on “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” That’s pretty much the same thing. Yet while it’s easy to imagine that such unrestricted capitalism is synonymous with laissez-faire capitalism, maybe it’s not. And if it isn’t, then the sophomoric challenge to “Show me where in the world we have unfettered capitalism!” doesn’t hold any water. (Samuel Gregg’s latest at NRO is a study in missing this point: “there is literally no country in which markets operate with “’absolute autonomy’,” says Gregg. But what Francis claimed was that the “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace” are suspect. Big difference there.)
To me, it looks like what Francis means by unrestricted capitalism is more intensive than extensive. It looks like he’s not worried at all (at least here) about the impact of government intervention and regulation on the expansion of free markets. Rather, he’s talking about “something new.” It’s obvious when he remarks on the nature of exclusion from such a schema: “those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.'” This is something apart from an extensive, quantitative type of “autonomy.” It’s intensive and qualitative, and deeply misguided. But that’s not what anyone—the pope’s critics or proponents—seem to have in mind.
Another proposition is that paragraph 57 of Evangelii Gaudium is far too easy to overlook; yet it’s central to the meaning of any “economic” analysis offered elsewhere. Here, the Holy Father states:
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.
This is difficult to hear—especially for those of us who enjoy exploring the value of “prudence,” even as it tends to occur somewhat separately from expressly religious claims. Still, Francis is quite right: a propensity to absolutize the “categories of the marketplace” is manifest. It might even be as simple as a failure to distinguish between economic judgments and moral ones. E.g., a statement like “Distribution in a free market tends to favor more accessible wealth” contains two types of judgments, but is often passed off as purely economic common sense. Even more disconcerting is the pope’s claim that the cause of this error is “a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.” But as far as descriptive value goes it’s hard to argue his point: look around and find many armchair economists but relatively few devoted Christians. Causality can’t be inferred directly from this, but the cards appear stacked. And if they are, what does that mean?
Finally, I ask myself: does anyone remember Joseph Ratzinger? He’s been eclipsed in the media frenzy, and we’ve all but absolved him from our cultural memory. But if Francis is anything he’s personable; if he values one thing it’s an encounter with the other, and usually in a way that runs contrary to the popular narrative. If the Holy Father remembers the poor of Rome living in bus stops and train stations, it’s hard to imagine him forgetting the (spiritually) poor in his own country. Benedict didn’t write Evangelii Gaudium the way he wrote Lumen Fidei, but it’s impossible to imagine him not receiving an advance copy, as well as refraining from offering academic distinctions (if not pastoral ones) where required. Of course, I don’t know anything about how that might have happened. But it’s an assumption that seems more warranted than not.