The Economic Message of ‘Evangelii Gaudium’

Too narrow a focus by some commentators on the economic aspects of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) risks hiding the unity of the Holy Father’s challenge to Catholics.

Francis wants the joy that "fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus" (1) to spread through evangelization, with a renewed effort to serve the poor (48). He gives us both principled and pragmatic reasons for prioritizing this concern for the poor. First, because God wills it (187). Second, because this would be the "‘the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the Kingdom’" (199; quoting Blessed John Paul II). Imagine the powerful impact and witness of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world working diligently and daily to improve the lives of the poor. Third, the inequality and lost productivity of the poor is a drag on the growth of the global economy and will lead to further economic crises (202).

He asks us not only to perform "small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter," but also to "work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor" (188).

What are these structural causes, and how do we eliminate them? The most provocative is what the Pope called the "absolute autonomy of markets" (202). Francis denounced the idea that "economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world" (54) and said that we "can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market" (204).

What does the Pope mean by this? It is not likely that he could be condemning the market economy system in its entirety and proposing socialism in its place, because in doing so he would be contradicting the unbroken teaching of popes since Leo XIII in 1891. On the contrary, the document affirms that "it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives" (192) and that welfare projects "should be considered merely temporary responses" (202).

It also doesn’t seem to make sense to say that Pope Francis is criticizing the entirely unregulated, and mythical, "laissez faire" economy, because, surely, he knows as well as anybody that this does not exist anywhere in reality. Nor is he likely to be condemning markets as such, since the justice and usefulness of markets have been acknowledged by popes and theologians for centuries.

What, then, is he criticizing? It appears that the Holy Father is denouncing the ideology (56) that when human beings are left alone to contract freely with one another, then the best of all possible worlds will arise. Like most ideologies, this one takes a good idea — of markets, which in themselves are the fairest and most efficient way to manage economic transactions — and extends it far beyond its proper scope.

Common sense alone should be sufficient to show the fallacy of this ideology: Without clear and fair ground rules for economic activity, and without principled behavior by participants, an economy cannot run efficiently, let alone justly. Indeed, the Church has taught consistently that the market economy needs to be founded on what Pope John Paul II called a "strong juridical framework" (Centesimus Annus, 42) that orients economic activity towards the common good (Evangelii Gaudium, 56 and 203). She teaches, further, that charity is the guiding principle even of our political and economic relationships (205, citing Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate).

But does anyone try to live this ideology in reality? Here are two examples of this ideology in action, which are prevalent in our society and which certainly justify Pope Francis’ criticism. The first is "crony capitalism," where firms depend more on political connections than on market success. Here, the belief in absolute autonomy leads them to make "investments" (typically through lobbying) to change the juridical framework underlying the market in order to receive special favors, such as "corporate welfare" or preferential regulation that inhibits new competition.

The second is a phenomenon that economist Andy Yuengert of Pepperdine University calls "the market made me do it." Business leaders will sometimes take actions that are inconsistent with human decency, such as paying very low wages, and claim that they were forced into such actions because of the competitive realities of the market. While this can sometimes be the case, at other times, it is a cop-out, reflecting a lack of imagination on the part of management.

Some can be so completely captivated by the ideology of the absolute autonomy of markets that it never even occurs to them to look for alternative options; they only do what the market "makes" them do. A more principled approach in this case, one that a number of firms have taken, is to find ways to help employees develop their skills to increase their productivity and substantiate higher wages.

Another structural cause of poverty is the "idolatry of money" (55). We let consumerism, the pursuit of money and stuff, rule our lives. The Church, at least since medieval times, has affirmed the legitimacy of private property. But she has also, as Pope Francis reminds us, taught that the "universal destination of goods" is more important than private property (189).

The universal destination of goods means that God created the world for the benefit of all, without any exclusion. Therefore, after satisfying our own needs and those of our family, the proper use of our property is to help others. The decision about what counts as our "needs" is a personal one. Nevertheless, Pope Francis reminds us, "The old question always returns: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ (1 John 3:17)" (187).

The Pope also speaks about the decline of marriage, which is worrisome because it is the "fundamental cell of society" (66). This decline deserves to be included in any list of structural causes of poverty, because the incidence of poverty, at least in the United States, is dramatically lower among intact families — where a husband and wife collaborate for the good of the family — than where single parents are forced to carry the burden of their families alone.

This, then, is how the economic aspects of Evangelii Gaudium are united with the rest of the document: If we work hard to find creative ways to include the poor in economic activity, and if we reject consumerism and the waste and weakness that it leads to, then we will serve God, grow in joy and foster greater economic prosperity for all.

Andrew Abela, Ph.D., is the dean of The Catholic University of America’s

School of Business & Economics, which teaches a person-centered approach to economic life.