It was inevitable. With the election of a new man to the Chair of Peter, we’re already seen an effort to portray him as “socially conservative” yet “economically progressive.” This seems to be the way virtually every pope has been presented since Pope Leo XIII’s long reign. And it’s a profound illustration of the limits of applying secular political categories to something like the Catholic Church.
No one in their right mind would describe Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., as an ecclesiastical Milton Friedman or a closet free marketer. Plainly, he’s not. But Pope Francis does have two particular concerns with regard to economic issues. One is the naked materialism and consumerism that disfigures so many peoples’ lives. No Catholic is going to affirm people seeking their salvation in the endless acquisition of stuff. Pope Francis’s asceticism is a clear repudiation of that mindset.
Pope Francis’ second concern regarding economic issues is the materially poor. Again, that’s precisely what you would expect from any orthodox Catholic. As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (who’s no social liberal) once memorably wrote: “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to Hell. Period.”
Over the centuries, however, Catholics have actually disagreed among themselves about how best to help the needy. Indeed, the Church teaches that (1) these issues fall largely into the area of what it calls prudential judgment; and (2) it is primarily the responsibility of lay Catholics. No Catholic can be a Communist. Nor can they be an anarcho-capitalist. But there is a lot of room between these extremes.
And how Catholics cash out that “in-between” is heavily influenced by the circumstances in which they find themselves. And in Pope Francis’ case, it’s the conditions of the economic basket-case otherwise known as modern Argentina.
Argentina is a once-prosperous nation that experienced a rapid spiral into seemingly perpetual economic dysfunction throughout the 20th century. Over and over again, Argentina has been brought to its knees by the populist politics of Peronism, which dominates Argentina’s Right and Left. “Kirchnerism,” as peddled by Argentina’s present and immediate past president, is simply the latest version of that.
In concrete terms, this pathology translates into big government, high taxes, hostility to business and foreign investment, heavy debt, and a level of corruption that defies imagination. That adds up to a strange mixture of unsophisticated Keynesianism and naked crony capitalism. And it doesn’t benefit the poor. It benefits the powerful and well-connected. In Argentina, you don’t get ahead through being economically entrepreneurial; you get ahead through political power and as many privileges from the state as you can.
This is the disaster that Pope Francis’ limited commentary on economic matters has sought to address since he became Argentina’s leading churchman in 1998. And Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that liberation theology is not the solution. One of the reasons he’s not so popular with some of his fellow Jesuits is that he stopped the Jesuits in Argentina from going down that path in the 1970s and '80s. Liberation theology’s Marxist components, he knew, were plainly incompatible with Catholicism. Father Bergoglio also foresaw that it would turn much of the Church into nothing more than just another utopian-revolutionary movement, as occurred in other parts of Latin America.
My suspicion is that Pope Francis is not going to invest enormous intellectual energy in proposing various schemes for economic reform. He will certainly continue to champion the interests of the poor against those who want to maintain the corrupt status quo prevailing throughout many developing nations. There is such a thing as economic justice and the Catholic Church has a definite view of what that looks like. But inferring that the new pope is going to bring Occupy Wall Street to the Vatican takes more than a stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s a form of Kirchneristic wishful thinking that simply doesn’t do justice to the wisdom and sanctity of the man.