In a formal Apostolic Exhortation very much in his personal voice, Pope Francis has turned heads this week with seven pages in a 300-page document. Much of the document focuses on individual spirituality, ministry and preaching.
Pope Francis has, since his election earlier this year, shown an unusual interest in shedding the trappings of office, engaging real people, and in shifting emphasis toward caring for the poor. This first clear statement in his own voice reflects all those concerns.
But those seven pages focused on condemning income inequality and the idolatry of wealth grabbed the headlines.
"[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world," the pope wrote. "This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."
The pope describes a world that seems to lack the basic welfare state commitments or expansive government control over environment, health care and financial markets in today's West.
"While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially," he wrote, "so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control."
The political implications of the pope's statement were not lost on observers. In a church where the right of pro-abortion Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi to take communion has sometimes been questioned, Republicans now find themselves in the papal crosshairs.
"While House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan slash billions from nutrition programs and are daily communicants in the church of free-market fundamentalism," wrote John Gehring at Faith in Public Life, "Pope Francis rejects trickle-down economics as a moral and practical failure." Both Ryan and Boehner are Catholic
"The pope’s words also are likely to discomfit conservatives, Catholics and otherwise, who see personal responsibility, not economic equality, as the antidote to crime," wrote Michael McGough at the Los Angeles Times. "Francis writes: 'Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.' This is just a longer version of the bumper sticker that drives conservatives crazy: 'If you want peace, work for justice.’ ”
At Forbes, Tim Worstall, who describes himself as a "good Catholic boy," was clearly "discomfited," as McGough predicted. Or rather, he described himself as in a "barely controlled rage."
The pope, Worstall writes, "seems to misunderstand the very world that we live in. He claims that we are such slaves to a market driven society that we have lost touch with the travails of the poor and are allowing inequality to increase. This being the exact obverse of what is really happening out there in the universe that we actually inhabit."
Offering up graphs and charts, Worstall agrees that "it’s entirely true that the already rich, that top 2 or 3 percent, have done very well. But the vast majority of the newly created wealth of the past 25 years has gone to those in the 5 to 75th percentiles of the income distribution. This is, thankfully, the poor getting rich."
"Defining poverty as less than $1/day, world poverty rates fell by 80% from 27% in 1970 to slightly more than 5% in 2006," Worstall wrote. "The corresponding total number of poor fell from 403 million in 1970 to 152 million in 2006. Similar findings apply if other poverty measures are used ($2/day, 5$/day, etc)."