Who would be willing to defend an argument with which they did not agree? Often this task falls to a professor playing “devil’s advocate” in the classroom, or to a student who is required to “better understand both sides of the debate.” However, in wake of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Evangeli Gaudium, in which he criticizes “trickle-down” theories of economics, it seems the most likely answer to this question may well just be: fiscally conservative Catholics.
Being someone who is both fiscally conservative and Roman Catholic, I have occasionally been challenged by friends and not-so-friendly acquaintances to explain how I can reconcile my pro-free-market views with Jesus’ teachings on loving thy neighbor and helping the poor (Matthew 22:39 and Mark 10:21, respectively). I often get the sense that such questions are inspired by a liberal populist critique of fiscal conservatives: that they do not actually care about the poor, let alone their neighbors (see articles written on Romney’s “47%” comments for evidence of this narrative’s existence).
Taking this narrative as fact, it could only mean one of two things: a) that I am a bold-faced hypocrite, or b) that I do not have the courage to prioritize my faith over my politics. Regarding the latter, a great Catholic, Father Richard John Neuhaus, writes, “acting in conscience is not a matter of what we feel like doing or what makes us comfortable. Conscience is the God-given capacity to discern the truth and act upon it, which is sometimes exceedingly uncomfortable.”
In most cases—abortion, for example—I would say that Father Neuhaus’ words are absolutely appropriate. However, when tasked with picking sides between the Pope and fiscal conservatism, I do not view it as a zero-sum game. In fact, I do not see the two as incompatible at all.
Some conservatives have chosen to respond to the Pope’s words by way of rationalization. They claim that the Pope’s life in Argentina, where crony capitalism and political corruption are the norm, has negatively colored his perception of the free market system.
To a certain extent I agree that we are all shaped by factors beyond our own control. For example, had I not been born white, baptized Catholic, and raised in conservative central Texas, would I still hold the same political, economic, and social beliefs that I do today? I honestly do not know.
One thing I do know for certain, however, is that to point to the Pope’s being Argentine as the source of his “ignorance” would be a mistake. To illustrate: the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation is a time when young people officially declare that they fully embrace, as adults in the Church, the teachings of the Catholic faith. In what I would presume to be the vast majority of instances (such as my own Confirmation) these young people acknowledge that their childhood faith was a product of factors beyond their control, and that through the sacrament of Confirmation, they are “confirming”—of their own volition—that Catholicism is what they genuinely believe in. If 17-year-old kids are able to “overcome” the influences of their parents, community, and upbringing in such a profound way, why do some critics of the Pope expect that he is any less capable?
Having expressed that I disagree with the “cultural upbringing rationalization” argument, let us now turn to another popular critique of the Pope’s comments: the argument that he is simply “wrong.” I do not believe that to be the case either.
Fiscal conservatism and Catholicism’s teachings on helping the poor are compatible—but it is up to us to make it so.
Yes, the United States is an exceptional example of how a free-market system has allowed for unprecedented private giving and volunteerism, as well as the chance for many to escape poverty and provide a better life for themselves and their families. Yes, the United States continues to lead the way in foreign aid and private donations—and that, I am convinced, has everything to do with our free market economy.
And no, we are not Argentina, but we are also not perfect. I am not convinced that Pope Francis was “not necessarily speaking about the United States” (as many have responded) when he made his comments, but I am also not convinced—as I have already established—that His Holiness is ignorant of the economic realities of our nation.
As the leader of the Catholic Church, the Pope necessarily speaks to the entire Catholic community (indeed, “catholic” means all-embracing); this includes American Catholics. As the leader of the Catholic Church, the Pope also advocates universal adherence to Jesus’ objective moral teachings—if there is one source of immorality persisting in the world (economic or otherwise), then there is still work to be done. Indeed, I do not believe we will ever see a moral universal economic system come to fruition, and as such, the Catholic Church’s work—and indeed, the work of the entire Christian community—will never truly be over.
So yes, America as a whole continues to be the exception to the Pope’s criticism of universal economic immorality, but economic immorality still persists in this country (lest we forget the high profile cases of Enron, Bernie Madoff, et al.). That is where you and I come in.
Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, said recently that “American Catholics and Americans in general…have a moral responsibility to the poor to spread the word of true free enterprise around the world… By doing that, we have the best shot of meeting the Holy Father’s objectives—which are good objectives.”
Just as Christian faithful fight an unending battle against sin wherever it persists in the world, Americans should continue to counteract—both at home and abroad—those who wish to distort what Brooks rightly describes as “true free enterprise.”
The Pope was quite clear in his criticism: he stated that market economies have fostered exclusionary behavior, that the rich have become insulated from the needs of the poor, and that markets have become deified (among other things). However, we should remember that Pope Francis was ultimately criticizing theories when he made his remarks—and it only makes sense that imperfect execution of theories and systems leads to imperfect (read: sinful) behavior. It is all well and good to believe in a theory, but just as it is with religion, if you do not act—and act justly—on your beliefs, then what good is it to espouse those beliefs anyway?
“True free enterprise” can be found at the intersection of theory and action: believing in a system that will provide—and in the case of the United States, has provided—the most prosperity to the most people, while at the same time actually enacting policies that help make that prosperity a reality.
As with Christian morality, the prosperous reality of “true free enterprise” will likely never come to be the universal norm—pursuing it is a constant battle (and a righteous one at that). The right and best thing for us to do as Americans, just as the Pope and Christians throughout the world continue to do, is encourage each other to translate our beliefs and theories into actions that work toward that norm.
Fiscal conservatism and Catholicism’s teachings on helping the poor are compatible—but it is up to us to make it so. Essentially, we must practice what we preach.