My colleague Bill Collinge and I were planning for the coming semester’s faculty seminar, where we engage faculty at the Mount across the disciplines in readings from the Catholic intellectual tradition. We spend a couple weeks on Catholic social teaching, and are planning on reading Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. I commented that I thought it was good to read this, as some people think Pope Francis has “suddenly” starting saying radical things about the economy, when we know that Paul VI said them almost 50 years ago. (And John Paul II and Benedict XVI both celebrated the anniversaries of this encyclical with radical statements of their own!)

Bill mentioned an article that had just gone around on a listserv. An editorial in Forbes magazine, it is headlined, “Vatican’s Turn to the Left Will Make the Poor Poorer.” The author, Steve Moore, is concerned (to say the least) about Francis’s upcoming environment encyclical. He does not mince words:

Pope Francis – and I say this as a Catholic – is a complete disaster when it comes to his public policy pronouncements. On the economy, and even more so on the environment, the Pope has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.

He adds that

the Pope’s missives on capitalism and income inequality are so misguided…. Catholics, of course, have a moral responsibility to care for the poor and disadvantaged. But the greatest vehicle for alleviating poverty and deprivation is the very institution of free market capitalism that he now denounces.

We are reminded that “Pope John Paul II, who aligned himself with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to help win the Cold War and defeat the evils of a communistic economic system,” supposedly did not show such sympathy toward the “statist oppressors” because of his own experience. But Francis just doesn’t get it.

This embrace of governmental action that underlies many of the Pope’s statements would not lift up the poor, but condemn them to more poverty and less freedom. Consider the climate change fanatics’ agenda. They seek cap and trade policies, carbon taxes, regulations against the use of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. These are all regressive forms of taxation that hurt the poor among us the most.

Furthermore, doesn’t the pope realize that the entire environmental movement is in fact the antithesis of Christianity?

This is the language of the radical green movement that is at its core anti-Christian, anti-people, and anti-progress. He has aligned himself with a secular movement that is antithetical to the fundamental theological underpinning of Catholicism — the sanctity of human life and the value of all souls. The modern pagan green religion in developed nations needs to be denounced by the Vatican.

I can hardly start to analyze the problems here. Did not John Paul II write the first major papal document on the environment, in his 1990 World Day of Peace message? Did not Benedict XVI, the Green Pope, see concern for the environment as a way of re-evangelizing secularizing countries, because of the environmental movement’s concern with respecting the created order? And consider these words, from no less an authority than Pope Leo XIII:

As regards the State, the interests of all, whether high or low, are equal. The members of the working classes are citizens by nature and by the same right as the rich; they are real parts, living the life which makes up, through the family, the body of the commonwealth; and it need hardly be said that they are in every city very largely in the majority. It would be irrational to neglect one portion of the citizens and favor another, and therefore the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due. To cite the wise words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “As the part and the whole are in a certain sense identical, so that which belongs to the whole in a sense belongs to the part.” Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice – with that justice which is called distributive – toward each and every class alike.

Leo obviously saw that the truly Catholic view of government and politics means there are other ways to refer to leaders besides “statist oppressors”!!

But Moore’s piece is part of a larger trend, which is obvious in his title: the analysis of the Church’s economic teachings in terms of moving “Left” or “Right.” Moore’s analysis is flawed not because he hasn’t read the encyclicals; it’s flawed because it is almost entirely controlled by the categories of Left and Right, of socialism and capitalism, of what Benedict XVI called “the market-state binary.” And no doubt these categories can control the analysis from the other side of the debate, too.

I am just so tired of these pieces. We should all just stop it. At its worst, what is happening in all too much press coverage is simply a convenient use of papal images and proof-texts to support one or another particular angle or agenda in the political debates of the day. Everyone who feels like commenting on Catholicism and the economy should read the following three books: Andrew Yuengert’s The Boundaries of Technique, Daniel Finn’s The Moral Ecology of Markets, and Luigino Bruni’s The Wound and the Blessing. Each of these fine thinkers is both economically knowledgeable and deeply faithful. Each of them offer sophisticated (yet accessible) models of Catholic economic analysis that are neither a condemnation of markets nor a simple endorsement of them. They come to mind because I am using them in a presentation at this weekend’s Society of Christian Ethics in Chicago, in analyzing what we should do about affordable housing. The models have affinities, though they are not identical. None of them is over 200 pages. And importantly, none of them can be put in the binary Moore and others are stuck in. It is long past time to understand that, from its inception, modern Catholic social teaching on the economy has been critical of those in command of both capitalist corporations and state power… at least as each has attempted to reduce the other to their own purposes. This accounts for both Francis’s harsh words on globalization and John Paul’s harsh words on totalitarian communism.

What could assist in this? The following three things would help a lot: (1) Bishops could make this clear to their local constituencies, and try to hold those constituencies accountable for mis-speaking about the Church in major public forums. (2) Catholic business schools could get serious about making these sorts of finer-grained analyses an intrinsic part of their curriculum, so that faculty and graduates could more compellingly explain and practice the concrete implications. (3) The Catholic press could present more of these analyses for debate and discussion among Catholic laity. To some extent, there are real hints of hope on all three of these things. But we need a lot more if we are to deal with the confusions sown in the faithful by articles like Moore’s.