We’ve Misunderstood Pope Francis on the Economy

Brazil PopePope Francis’ has criticized inequality and consumerism with new fervour in The Joy of the Gospel. In doing so he has been accused of economic ignorance by some rather frustrated advocates of the free market. They say that he will confirm in peoples minds that the Church “doesn’t take economics seriously” and he is “unduly pessimistic” about the benefits of free market capitalism. His critics, however, completely misunderstand what it is that Pope Francis is doing. Rather than simply holding up readily available economic models against our vision of the Kingdom of God (to see what fits best) he’s choosing to view our global economic activity through a theological lens.

Too often those interested in what the church has to say on economic matters look for statements that can condemn, or seem to come out in favour of particular pre-existing economic models, but Pope Francis isn’t interested in playing that game. He believes our “socioeconomic system is unjust at its root”, that we too often trust in the “sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system”, that it is “vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons”, and asks why they don’t “turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans?”

What is offered here is an opportunity to break out of the confines of the current economic debate; we have a chance to reimagine the way we think about economics, to give us a way to move beyond what Franz Hinkelammert calls “Capitalism without alternatives”. This doesn’t mean some kind of violent revolution (or even one of the mind, like Russell Brand suggests) but by simply looking at things from a new angle and reassessing them theologically.

Catholic Social teaching has often hinted at this deeper theological understanding of our economic activity, and tried to look at the wider consequences of these economic models, but Pope Francis takes it much further. He doesn’t see consumerism, materialism and individualism as separate from capitalism, nor does he see the underappreciated problem of idolatry as separate from economic questions; he can see the social problems capitalism has brought to our door. He focuses a section of The Joy of the Gospel on his firm “no to the new ideology of money”, recognising the return of the “worship of the ancient golden calf … in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose”.

Fundamentally what Pope Francis is doing is putting theological questions before economic ones. Instead of choosing an economic system that is a best fit to our vision for humanity he wants us to rethink our whole economic and social activity so that we can shape it in the light of our vision for humanity. This of course can take on board the evidence Gregg, Booth and Fr Sirico put forward in favour of free markets as the best way to bring an end to inequality, along with evidence that may well point the other way and other responses, but these questions and details are secondary.

I do however think Pope Francis could have gone further with his theological analysis, however. At one point in the document he mentions the “happy few”, the prosperous that enjoy increased income at the expense of the majority, but I think he’s missed something here. Those who have vast amounts of money are so often corrupted and caught up more in the idolatry of consumerism than those without, as Alasdair MacIntyre says “capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them”.

Pope Francis isn’t alone in his attempt to reframe the whole economic question in theological terms, the two American theologians William T Cavanaugh and Daniel M Bell Jr have both spent many years uncovering Christian resources for new socioeconomic visions for the Church and for the world. This could be a whole new chapter for the social teaching of the Church, and if we get it right, a whole new chapter for our socioeconomic reality.

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Pope Francis, the Gospel, joy, and young people

Since reading Pope Francis’ new document,The Joy of the Gospel, I have a huge amount of hope for the future of the Church’s work with the young.

It raises many points that would mean, if we do it right, we’re much more open, available and welcoming to young people.

While I think the Pope’s desire to kick dysfunctional parishes into good pastoral practice, along with his strong message of social justice (backed up by action, making him the most visible world leader on matters of social justice) gives real hope, the biggest part for me is his willingness to drop out-dated Catholic cultures and language, and his encouragement for us to move forward.

“Youth ministry, as traditionally organised, has also suffered the impact of social changes. Young people often fail to find responses to their concerns, needs, problems and hurts in the usual structures. As adults, we find it hard to listen patiently to them, to appreciate their concerns and demands, and to speak to them in a language they can understand” #105

“Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them.” #43

When casually talking with the young people I work with about the things that are most important to me, I struggle to find a language to communicate my trust in God, how I see the world because of it, what it challenges me to do and why.

I’m looking for words and frames of reference that are both intelligible to them and adequately express what I’m trying to say, but can rarely find them.

 Unintelligible religious language

At twenty five, I’m also a ‘young Catholic’ who comes across unintelligible religious language all too often.

Just the other day I found a thick booklet that was a guide to the Divine Mercy devotion. I was flicking through it, and while I recognised the words on the pages, I didn’t understand what was being said, never mind why it was being said.

If you’ve not had this experience, try listening to the shipping forecast! Unless you’re the son or daughter of a sailor you’ll get the same reaction!

I think these kinds of religious language and practices are part of what Pope Francis calls in this document Catholic ‘styles’, the way we live out the Church, what it looks like in our lives.

Youth work and today’s culture

Too many times I’ve seen those working with young people try to deal with this problem of unintelligibility by moving towards two different ways of coping.

The first involves a turn away from our culture, what we know and the values of the society around us; the other starts to look almost identical to the society around us. Neither option is really successful in sharing ‘the joy of the Gospel’.

Pope Francis’ perception of some who work in the Church as people who “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past“ #94.

Holding onto the past, grasping at the present

I think this is how many people respond to the problem, by working with small groups to get them to hold on to these styles of yesteryear.

While in terms of their religious culture they remain in the past, often they use more modern language, words and phrases (that to me seem to me to be more at home in an Evangelical or Pentecostal church).

To my ears, this kind of language always sounds insincere, more like they’re running off scripts and slogans rather than speaking from their hearts and in their own voice.

I think this style works only with a few, is unduly pessimistic about the culture and society we live in, and takes us backwards religiously, so can’t be an option for openly spreading ‘the joy of the Gospel’.

The second coping strategy in youth ministry tends to smooth over, or as Pope Francis says, “relativize or conceal their Christian identity and convictions” #79.

This response is very good at engaging with young people in the culture and society they know, and it’s good at ‘meeting them where they are’, but too often it simply leaves them in much the same place, without any lasting and deep relationship.

A kind of happiness is shared, but not necessarily ‘the joy of the Gospel’.

What is of the gospel in our culture?

Of course it’s not all like this. There is a huge amount of good youth ministry and youth work happening all over.

I think what is lacking, though, is a widespread and popular style; Catholic cultures and languages that aren’t variants of either of the two options described above.

Perhaps what’s needed to get this going is what Charles Taylor calls a ‘Ricci reading’; an evaluation of what in our culture is of the gospel and what isn’t (named after Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit Missionary to China who sought to do just that).

The best people to help us with that, I suspect, are are young people themselves.

I hope Pope Francis’ challenge will give us the impetus to leave some of these customs and styles behind and imagine our own. As he says himself,

“young people call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent new directions for humanity and open us up to the future, lest we cling to a nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer life-giving in today’s world” #108.

This article was published by the New Zealand CathNews Catholic News website, you can see the post here.