David Limbaugh tweeted that “pope’s statements on abortion/life are in his domain but economics are not” and later cited my recent NR article on Pope Francis in defense of that view. That’s perfectly fine as a tweet, but as I’m sure Limbaugh would agree a tweet can’t capture everything. I wouldn’t deny that a pope can make authoritative statements about economic matters: There isn’t a subject-matter limitation on what he can usefully or legitimately discuss. What I’m saying is that most of this pope’s comments on economics either have not been proposed as teachings of the Catholic Church, or do not yield determinate conclusions for public policy, or both. The Church does, on the other hand, have a teaching on the right to life and it does fairly conclusively land on one side of our political debates.
Unfortunately Peter Weber, writing for The Week, misses all of this and instead runs with a hostile caricature of my article. I wrote that American conservatives should keep in mind that Francis is “a man whose understanding of economics has been shaped by an Argentinian political economy very different from our own.” Weber suggests that I’m saying that “Argentina’s experience with capitalism [is] not valid.” No: I’m saying that we shouldn’t assume Francis thinks about economic issues in the same context Americans tend to. I’m warning Americans, that is, not to treat the entire world as an extension of the United States. It’s a simple point, really, easily graspable if you’re not trying to battle ideological enemies.
Weber claims that I describe Francis as an “intellectual lightweight,” which is not true either: I said that he often makes careless statements, which is another thing entirely. And Weber claims that I make “jesuitical” distinctions about “what the Catholic Church is qualified to weigh in on,” suggesting that I say it can’t do so on economics.
I have never claimed that the Church cannot weigh in on economics: I am well aware that it has long done so. I insist, however, that we should distinguish between the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks and the Church’s official teachings. One of the examples I used concerns campaign-finance regulation. Only a fool would treat the pope’s remarks on it as equivalent in authority to an encyclical. And I also insist that we should not take the teachings to be more or less specific than the Church presents them as being. I’m not saying that the Church and the pope have no “right” to tell us how exactly to set tax policy: I’m saying that the pope and the Church have wisely refrained from doing so.
Weber concludes that “it’s a little rich for the high priests of Voodoo Economics to be calling the Vicar of Christ an economic charlatan with nothing important to say.” I’m the main person targeted in the column, and I’m not a high priest of anything. My most recent writing on supply-side economics has been directed at cautioning its adherents against making overblown claims. And I haven’t called Francis “an economic charlatan with nothing important to say,” since I don’t think he is such a thing.
I think we should listen respectfully and carefully to Pope Francis—even those of us who in the end find many points on which to disagree with him. But as Weber demonstrates, paying careful attention to what people with whom we disagree are actually saying is not an instinct that always comes naturally to us.