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Cardinal Dolan's Take on Pope Francis and "Trickle-Down Economics"

Cardinal Timothy Dolan explains Pope Francis' views about free markets to Wall Street .

BY Joan Desmond

| Posted 5/23/14 at 6:25 PM

 

Don't believe all the stuff you read about Pope Francis' attacks on free-market economics, says Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in a May 22 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal

The church believes that prosperity and earthly blessings can be a good thing, gifts from God for our well-being and the common good. It is part of human nature to work and produce, and everyone has the natural right to economic initiative and to enjoy the fruits of their labors. But abundance is for the benefit of all people.

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. And so the pope, and many others, are deeply concerned about the development of a "throwaway culture," an "economy of exclusion" and a "culture of death" that corrode human dignity and marginalize the poor.

It is in this context that the holy father's earlier criticism of "trickle-down economics" can be properly understood. One does not have to subscribe uncritically to the notion that "a rising tide lifts all boats" to acknowledge that all people, including the poor, benefit from a general increase in the overall wealth of society.

Cardinal Dolan uses the Journal's  pro-free-market op-ed page to articulate the Church's broader vision of free economic activity mediated by the virtue of its participants and responsive to regulation by the state. 

But the church certainly disapproves of any system of unregulated economic amorality, which leaves people at the mercy of impersonal market forces, where they have no choice but to sink, swim or be left with the scraps that fall from the table. That kind of environment produces the evils of greed, envy, fraud, misuse of riches, gross luxury and exploitation of the poor and the laborer. Fortunately, few people subscribe to an inhumane philosophy of radical economic individualism, and even fewer consider the "Wolf of Wall Street" to be a good role model.

 

Cardinal Dolan also makes a pointed remark about the difference between U.S.-style capitalism and the corrupt regimes in much of the developing world that allow politically-connected business leaders and families to get richer, while the poor are excluded from the marketplace.

It's also worth noting that what many people around the world experience as "capitalism" isn't recognizable to Americans. For many in developing or newly industrialized countries, what passes as capitalism is an exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy. Americans must remember that the holy father is speaking to this world-wide audience.

Cardinal Dolan echoes the Church's deeply realistic view of the limits of central planning: socialism cannot make an unjust econmy more accessible to the poor or resolve inequalities.

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. When properly regulated, a free market can certainly foster greater productivity and prosperity. But, as the pope continually emphasizes, the essential element is genuine human virtue.

The New York cardinal notes that Pope Francis has offered the story of Zacchaeus as a case study of virtue in business. . 

In speaking to the U.N. leaders, Pope Francis recalled the story of Zacchaeus, in which Jesus inspires the repentant tax collector to make a radical decision to put his economic wealth at the service of others. This reminds us that a spirit of sharing and solidarity with others, in the words of Francis, "should be at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity."

In other words, virtuous people, acting justly, compassionately and honestly, are the foundation of good economic or business activity that can produce prosperity for all, and not just for a few.

Cardinal Dolan interprets Pope Francis' public critique of "trickle-down economics" not as a a statement of condemnation as much as a call to take personal responsibility for economic justice and the inclusion of the poor in the fruits of economic activity. It's easy to blame "the markets" for leaving some people out, but that's not the Church's understanding of personal responbility.

As Pope Francis reminds us, individual generosity, private economic development, community and family initiatives, and public policies of "legitimate redistribution of economic benefits" all have a role in enhancing economic opportunities, and in alleviating and eliminating poverty. A just economic order relies on both material wealth and on people's openness to the transformation of their hearts in love and solidarity. That is the path to the greatest kind of prosperity for all.