NAPA, Calif. — Charged with explaining Pope Francis’ views on economic justice at a recent Catholic conference in California, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia acknowledged that the Holy Father has shocked some of the faithful with his broadsides against free-market economies.

Pope Francis’ firsthand experience with “the plague of corrupt politics and oppressive governments” has shaped his view of economic systems, Archbishop Chaput suggested during a July 26 address at the Napa Institute, an annual gathering that brings together bishops, business leaders and Catholic apostolates.

“When we Americans think about economics, we think in terms of efficiency and production. When Francis thinks about economics, he thinks in terms of human suffering,” he observed.

Yet as he probed the Pope’s statements on economic policy and outreach to the poor, Archbishop Chaput touched on the larger truth underscored by the faithful’s intense reaction to the Pope’s harsh words about “the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal,” as Francis put it in a May 2013 address.

“G.K. Chesterton said that every age gets the saint it needs. Not the saint people want, but the saint they need; the saint who’s the medicine for their illness. The same may be true of popes,” said Archbishop Chaput.

Thus, in an age of anxiety shaped by fears of an uncertain future for American workers and by individualistic values that often ignore the common good, the Pope is prodding believers to think more deeply about issues that make them uncomfortable.

In his speeches, media interviews and his blueprint for evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium (The Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World), the Holy Father has attacked free-market economies and called for a more equal distribution of wealth. But he has also described business as a “noble” calling and emphasized the importance of work.

“When he calls for a better distribution of wealth among social classes, he doesn’t say how this should be done and what a proper distribution would look like or who will decide who gets what,” noted Archbishop Chaput.

He suggested that the Pope is primarily concerned with articulating “the principles of a rightly ordered social and economic life, as the Catholic Church understands them,” while leaving laypeople in government and business to working out specific policies.

According to Archbishop Chaput, Francis places “the social function of property and the universal destination of goods before private property.”

The Pope believes, “We’re given private ownership of goods because they need to be protected and increased, so the goods we have will better serve the common good,” he said.

Francis has criticized libertarian values that view market forces as the most efficient mechanism for strengthening a nation’s economy and creating jobs for the poor.

“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic,” the Holy Father has stated.


Timeless Catholic Social Teaching

The Pope’s strong language has riled some Americans and provoked criticism from economists who say he doesn’t understand the workings of government-regulated, U.S.-style market economies.

But he has also stirred the attention of alienated Catholics and revitalized interest in Catholic social teaching, which calls for a social and economic order that affirms the dignity of each person, especially the marginalized, and establishes “right relationships” between business owners and workers and the rich and the powerless.

People are confused by Pope Francis and ask, “‘Is he changing the message of the Church?’ No. Pope Francis has changed the audience,” said Tim Gray, the president of the Augustine Institute, a Denver-based graduate program in theology, during an address at the conference that examined the scriptural roots of Catholic teaching that inspired the early Church to leave no one in need.

The Church’s witness to the dignity of the poor should be at the center of the New Evangelization, noted Archbishop Chaput, in part, because it offers the most credible response to partisan voices that reject the Church’s integrated vision of life and seek instead to create a false choice between the defense of the unborn and concern for those living on “the fringes.”

“I think it would be a mistake to describe him as a ‘liberal’ — much less a ‘Marxist,’” said Archbishop Chaput of Pope Francis. “Words like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ don’t describe Catholic belief. They divide what shouldn’t be divided. We should love the poor and love the unborn child ... [which] spring from the same Catholic commitment to human dignity.

“There’s nothing ‘progressive’ about killing an unborn human child or allowing it to happen. And there’s nothing ‘conservative’ about ignoring the cries of the poor.”


Defying Political Labels

Still, some politically partisan commentators have dismissed the Pope as a “leftist,” while President Barack Obama has said the Holy Father echoes his own views on the scourge of economic inequality.

Earlier this year, a New York Times story noted, “Francis’ denunciation of an 'economy of exclusion' goes to the heart of the debate between the two parties over the role of government.”

Catholic social teaching does not offer a “detailed model for the relationship between government intervention and the exercise of public freedom in the economy,” noted Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Rather, he added, the body of teaching is based on a radical respect for the inalienable dignity of the human person that is bestowed by God and thus exists prior to the state.

When the Church evaluates a nation’s social and economic structures, it asks whether they enhance human dignity and “preserve right relationships,” Reyes explained.

The Church calls on the faithful and other people of goodwill to address the suffering caused by material and spiritual poverty and thus to repair damaged relationships — just as Mother Teresa of Calcutta sought to heal the wounds of the poor and the alienated through the apostolates of the Missionaries of Charity.

But Pope Francis has not only drawn the world’s attention to the plight of the poor; he has equated the market economy with the Golden Calf of the Old Testament.


Cardinal Dolan’s Defense

The furor on Wall Street prompted Cardinal Dolan of New York to leap to the Pope’s defense on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal.

“The spread of the free market has undoubtedly led to a tremendous increase in overall wealth and well-being around the world. Yet Pope Francis is certainly correct that ‘an important part of humanity does not share in the benefits of progress.’ Far too many people live in poverty and have few opportunities to achieve prosperity,” wrote Cardinal Dolan in a May 22 column. “Yet the answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control. The Church has consistently rejected coercive systems of socialism and collectivism, because they violate inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property.”

On Capitol Hill, GOP party leaders, like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have dismissed elements of Francis’ critique of free markets, but they’ve offered their own solutions to the “politics of exclusion,” proposing policies that decrease the tax burden for the working poor, boost earned income and and promote upward mobility.

The debate sparked by the Pope’s views will likely continue in Washington and perhaps on Wall Street as well. Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops see the Pope’s statements on the economy and his promotion of a “culture of encounter” as antidotes to a “throwaway culture” that is blind to the dignity of the powerless.

In recent weeks, for example, the humanitarian crisis created by the surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border has prompted some towns to stage protests opposing the temporary placement of such children in local public and military installations. In response, a number of U.S. bishops have denounced such protests and called for the public to welcome the migrants.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, where many undocumented minors have received temporary shelter, emphasized the need to welcome the migrants.

“People coming across the border have problems, but we cannot allow ourselves to define them — or an unborn baby — as ‘a problem,’” said Archbishop Wenski.

“Catholic social teaching tells us to look at them as human beings, not as ‘a problem.’ That is the unique perspective we … can give the world.” 

This humanitarian aid comes along with the need to address problems with the immigration system and its enforcement in Congress and elsewhere.

Despite — or perhaps because of the debate generated by the Pope’s criticism of market economies — Church leaders acknowledge that Francis has disrupted the complacency of Catholics throughout the Church, from the local bishop to the Wall Street banker and from the congressman to the small-business owner.

The Pope, said Archbishop Chaput, “never lets us off the hook as individuals. He won't let us point at ‘them,’ big government and big corporations, as the people mainly responsible for creating a just society.”

He concluded: “What he calls ‘the political project of inclusion’ belongs not only to governments and the wealthy, but to everyone.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.