Re: The Pope and His Politics

by Stephen P. White

Andrew Stuttaford commented on Pope Francis’s most recent remarks about “unrestrained liberalism.” Andrew asks, rhetorically, if the pope has actually seen “unrestrained [economic] liberalism” somewhere in action – the implication being that the pope, consciously or otherwise, has been attacking a straw man. The question is fair enough, and since I suspect a lot of NRO readers share Andrew’s concerns and uneasiness with the way this pope speaks about matters economic, I’d like to venture at least a partial response.

In 1991, Pope John Paul II posed this question: Given the collapse of Communism in Europe, should capitalism be seen as the “path to true economic and civil progress?” “The answer,” the pope wrote, “is obviously complex.” The answer, he insisted, depends on what one means by “capitalism”:

If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

I mention this by way of suggesting that, when Pope Francis criticizes “so-called unrestrained liberalism” he means something other than liberalism in its purest form or markets unrestrained by the state. Rather, he means something closer to John Paul II’s second definition of capitalism – an approach to economics that acknowledges no limits to the freedom of economic actors beyond self-interest and those limits imposed by the market itself.

Both Popes’ criticisms obtain whether the market in question is shaped (or distorted, as the case may be) by government regulation or not.

Understood this way – i.e., that the moral limits of economic activity are simply not coextensive with the limits of what even a heavily regulated market will allow – Francis’ criticism challenges both an over-reliance on the ability of markets to produce humane results and a mistaken confidence in the state’s ability to provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of human freedom.

(Pope Francis’s warnings about the “idolatry of money” and his denouncements of a “culture of waste” – which treats things, including the natural world and, eventually, people, as disposable objects to be consumed or discarded as if they had no intrinsic value – can all be read in this same light.)

While economic liberalism in its purest form might not exist, “unrestrained liberalism,” in the sense I take Pope Francis to mean, certainly does. Pope Francis is deeply concerned that our globalized economy lends itself to a “gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption.” That hardly seems a far-fetched criticism of the current economic reality.

And since insisting that true liberalism doesn’t exist is hardly an argument for why it should, defenders of the free economy – capitalism in Pope John Paul II’s primary sense – must be willing to grapple with serious criticisms arising from the undeniable human costs of our actual, imperfect economy. To acknowledge imperfect liberalism’s shortcomings is hardly tantamount to a rejection of liberalism; it is, however, a necessary prerequisite to constructing a liberalism – however defined – that advances truly human ends.

Advancing such ends involves government. This in itself is a very vague statement, and Andrew is correct that practical questions about the “when and how” of state intervention in the economy are important. That Pope Francis doesn’t attempt specific answers to those questions is instructive. Popes have always insisted that the Church does not have technical solutions to offer to these questions. Francis himself notes: “Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres. All my predecessors have said the same thing, for many years at least, albeit with different accents.”

This brings me to one last point – the prescribed papal remedy to our economic ills is not statism. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, it is tempting to view economic questions, broadly speaking, as a tug-of-war between state and market forces. But this view leaves out a crucial part of the equation:

The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.

(By a “market of gratuitousness,” Pope Benedict means a market in which economic actors consciously commit to make economic choices that go beyond self-interest, making room for “gifts” rather than mere “exchanges.” Such talk may give economists fits, but every parent understands, on some level, what he’s talking about.)

Civil society plays an enormous, though often hidden, role in regulating our economic life. After all, it is where most economic activity takes place. Moreover, it is in the midst of the institutions of civil society – families, churches, schools, businesses, etc. – that we learn, if we are to learn at all, our fundamental moral commitments, including those moral commitments that shape our economic choices in ways no government regulation ever could. The less civil society fulfills this “regulatory” role by strengthening (and enforcing) our commitments to responsible economic behavior, the greater the temptation will become to use the blunt instruments of the state to achieve desired moral-economic outcomes.

— Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.