His Holiness generously likes to share with the world his ideas on subjects not immediately related to his institutional domain.
There’s nothing wrong with that in itself. In fact, one could argue that everything in life either lies within the pontiff’s domain or at least touches on it tangentially. However, finding an accommodation between Caesar’s things and God’s is an intellectually demanding task, and I’m not sure Pope Francis is quite up to it.
The task is so demanding because no evangelist graced us with a gospel of Christ the Economist, Christ the Lawyer, Christ the Educator or Christ the Marriage Counsellor. All the evangelists vouchsafed us are the Gospels of Christ our Lord.
That, however, doesn’t mean that the divine message concerns matters of the spirit only. For it’s Christ’s person, not just his teaching, that’s the essence of Christianity.
By uniting within himself the human and the divine, Jesus sanctified not only the metaphysical spirit but also the physical body. (Denying this fact produced the deadliest heresies in the history of Christianity.)
Reconciling the two in daily life is hard, but it’s not impossible. Though I seem to be the only one to use the term ‘applied theology’, many great thinkers have practised that discipline under different rubrics. They all knew there’s life not only after death but also before it, and that life must be lived within the material framework, but without compromising eternity.
One of the areas of quotidian life to which theology can be applied is economics, and this is the task Pope Francis often puts on his already overladen shoulders. What he has written this time does contain a kernel of truth, but it’s buried under such a huge pile of rubbish that discerning it becomes well nigh impossible.
“The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom,” wrote Francis, and that’s the kernel of truth I mentioned.
It’s not even necessary to drag the pandemic in – the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of what I call economic totalitarianism has been evident for a long time. Neither market freedom nor market unfreedom is the answer to our prayers.
The Marxist belief in the primacy of economics has begotten most of the objectionable modern movements, both of the left and of the right. It’s distressing to see that such libertarian thinkers as the odious Ayn Rand and the nice Milton Friedman accept Marx’s premises and only attach a different sign to them.
They all believe that economic virtue can cure man of his sins – they just define virtue differently. Nationalise the economy, says Marx, and everything else will fall into place. Free up the economy, say the libertarians, and everything else will take care of itself.
Like Orwell’s animals, both sides reduce everything to a single issue. They just can’t agree on the number of legs.
Yes, the Pope could have said, Jesus did teach that his kingdom is not of this world. But he made it abundantly clear that his kingdom is higher than this world. Therefore, a Christian must measure all his earthly activities, including economic ones, against the Kingdom of God.
But that doesn’t mean that any successful economic activity somehow contradicts God’s commandments by definition. Yet this is precisely what the Pope says, while revealing most lamentable economic illiteracy.
“In today’s world, many forms of injustice persist,” he writes, “fed by… a profit-based economic model that does not hesitate to exploit, discard and even kill human beings.”
It’s true that free markets don’t eliminate sin and consequently all the woes that so upset the pontiff. But do they actually ‘feed’ injustices? One detects a spot of post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy here, and an implicitly loose definition of justice. An income disparity, for example, as often as not reflects not injustice but justice, people getting what they deserve.
The Pope seems to imply that economic models not based on the profit motive promote universal harmony and security. There His Holiness ventures onto the swampy ground of empirical evidence, and it swallows him up.
For no profit-grabbing economic system has ever produced as much human misery as do models ostensibly rejecting profit as the driver of an economy. Hundreds of millions died horrific deaths in the twentieth century alone in the name of profit-free economic justice.
In this world we aren’t blessed with perfect systems, but there’s a difference between imperfection and evil. That, I’m afraid, is the choice we face when it comes to economies: imperfect freedom reflecting human nature, or perfect slavery stamping human nature, along with human lives, into the blood-soaked dirt.
The Pope went on to attack “the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’”, using magic in the meaning of false. That again is ignoring overwhelming empirical evidence.
For wealth accumulated by the smart operators of free markets does trickle down all the way to the bottom. That’s why most of today’s poor in the West would have been regarded as sinfully prosperous at any other time in history.
His Holiness then went on to endorse the discredited and defunct theory of zero-sum economics: “if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it.”
At the heart of this neo-Marxist theory is the picture of an economy as a pie whose size never changes. Therefore if one greedy individual helps himself to a large slice, some poor person will only get crumbs off the table.
This fallacy, like many others, is based on a false premise. Accept it, and everything else seems to make sense. But this premise simply doesn’t tally with plainly visible facts.
For free economies (and which Western economy is truly free these days?) are always dynamic. They may go up or down, but, viewed over a long time, they grow.
Thus, when I first graced the West with my presence, in 1973, the FTSE 100 stood at 478. Today, even after having lost 150 points to the pandemic, it’s 5841. This means that the top UK companies are now worth 12 times more than in 1973 – that’s a much bigger pie to slice up.
The Pope is held to be infallible when pronouncing on faith and dogma ex cathedra. Alas, when enlarging on other subjects from a less lofty pulpit, he is very fallible indeed. That would seem to be a good reason to desist, but who am I to offer advice to the Holy Father?