Is the Pope a Catholic? After his third encyclical, released on the feast of his papal namesake St Francis this Sunday, I’m not exactly sure.
The target this time was the evils of individualism, neoliberalism, and capitalism. It is fascinating that the Holy Father decided to use St Francis of Assisi to lambast the free market — the same saint who Margaret Thatcher invoked on Downing Street as she began her time as Prime Minister.
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
These words of St Francis of Assisi are active, the ‘we’ involved is inclusive and demands something of the speaker. The Pope, though, sees the individual in the modern world as someone buffeted by power, with no control over their own life, and at all too high a risk of exploitation. The free market, he argues, has ‘no place’ for those born into poverty, disability or without education and healthcare.
It is absurd to claim that advocates of free markets have abandoned these people. It is the market system that has provided more income, opportunity, and wealth than any other that has been tried. In the space of a few decades it has delivered billions out of the poverty he says they’re locked into. It has generated the wealth that means we can look after those that cannot work.
The Catholic Church, of which I have been a member since my childhood baptism, has a simple set of duties: the salvation of the immortal soul, the dispensation of the sacrament to the faithful, the spreading of the gospel, and caring for the poor, sick and destitute.
This document does none of these things, and actively diminishes the potential for the latter. Where the Pope declares that “if we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all” he misunderstands the power of the words of Adam Smith that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”.
Smith is not describing the world as he wants it to be, like the Pope is, but observing the world as it is, and then using the advantage of that knowledge to provide as good an outcome to as many people as possible.
I wrote recently about the series Street Food, which showed the power of the market to help people who have been marginalised, abused, let down and left out take control over their lives. People who realise that through serving their own self-interest, by pursuing passion and profit, they can serve others.
What is strange throughout this Papal polemic is that the Pontiff is open to the idea of the human as a social animal, but doesn’t get that trade and exchange are social relationships.
All told, this tired encyclical is a mish-mash of cliché and anti-capitalist diatribes we’ve become all too used to seeing in the West. Capitalism has seen investment and promoted individual interests, he argues, but it has “undermined the communitarian dimension of life”.
“There are markets where individuals become mere consumers or bystanders,” the Holy Father says. Yet consumers are not bystanders, by definition. They are actors, agents of change, who in their small and modest or big and powerful way, decide to mould the world.
“The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith,” the Pope says invoking the great Satan of neoliberalism. Again, it’s a dramatic mischaracterisation of what free markets actually entail.
The neoliberal creed
The market is not some amorphous separate object from humanity, it is humanity. If the neoliberal ‘faith’ – of which I am also a fully signed up member – is anything, it’s the idea that when you let people pursue their own happiness, without the threat of violence and hate, that their interactions lead to a better world.
In fact neoliberalism is a truly Catholic school of thought. It rests on the same belief that Christ shared: that humans falter and fail, that we’re never perfect and nor are we meant to be. No part of Jesus’ message said that He expected us to be as perfect as God. But he did argue that we should choose to do good by as many of our fellow men as possible; that we should choose to ask for forgiveness for our faults; that we should choose to accept Him as Saviour.
Choice and the freedom to choose is at the heart of the Christian message. If you are a Christian then God has given you a universe of choices, some may be good, some may be evil, and there are ambiguities in all. Those that sell quick fixes to such complexity are misunderstanding the nature of trade-offs. The Christian God understands the complexity of the choices that face humanity.
Even upon the cross the message of choice was at the centre of Christ’s teaching. The men either side of Jesus choose different paths, one seeking to atone and the other turning away. One is saved, the other gone for good. The message to me has always been simple: Your choice, your active choice matters, right up until the very last.
The Pope says that he fears that the world is becoming deaf, incapable or unwilling to listen to the complexities of others. But that’s nothing to do with liberal economics. Indeed, it is the market that allows us to listen, see, hear, and reach out. Its flourishing has been the most incredible force for good that humanity has ever seen.
I worry the Pope’s own deafness to that belies a desire to remove the full gambit of human interactions available to us, to rob us of our full humanity under the guise of doing good. Still, at least with this encyclical, the Pope has finally proven that he is not infallible.
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