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Pope Francis On Poverty Warrants Scrutiny: Samuel Gregg

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Pope Francis has released his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). An apostolic exhortation

…is published to encourage the faithful to live in a particular manner or to do something, e.g., post synodal documents offered to the church in summary of a previous synod and hoping the faithful will do something helpful for the life of the church…

Acton’s Director of Research, Sam Gregg, takes a look at Evangelii Gaudium at National Review OnlineFirst, Gregg points out that this is a beautiful document in many ways, with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit and Francis’ call for more collegiality between Rome and local churches.

However, Gregg also says that some of the pope’s points are “rather questionable.” Gregg mentions the subject of Islam and the pope’s assertion that it is non-violent. However, Gregg’s main focus has to do with the pope’s economic reflections.

Prominent among these is the pope’s condemnation of the ‘absolute autonomy of markets’ (202). This, he firmly believes, is at the root of many of our contemporary problems, not least because it helps rationalize an unwillingness to assist those in need.

If, however, we follow Evangelii Gaudium’s injunction (231–233) to look at the realities of the world today, we will soon discover that there is literally no country in which markets operate with “absolute autonomy.” In most Western European countries, for instance, governments routinely control an average of 40 percent of their nations’ GDP. In many developing countries, the percentage is even higher. How much more of the economy do we really want to put into the state’s hands? Is there no upper limit? In private correspondence with the British-Australian economist Colin Clark, for example, even John Maynard Keynes suggested that the figure of “25 percent [of GDP] as the maximum tolerable proportion of taxation may be exceedingly near the truth.”

Nor does there appear to be any consciousness in Evangelii Gaudium of just how regulated most of the world’s economies are. The rules and regulations that apply, for instance, to economic life in North America and Western Europe are fast approaching the status of beyond counting. The situation in most developing countries is hardly any better. So extensive is the range and scope of regulation that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is now creating genuine rule-of-law problems in many countries. The amount of regulation affecting developed Western economies is now so great that it is likely that even good judges with no interest in judicial activism are issuing rulings that are ad hoc and arbitrary in nature.

Gregg believes the pope leaves too many assumptions regarding economy unexamined, and that “particular realities” are missing from the pope’s thoughts here. As Gregg concludes:

If we want ‘the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good’ to be more than what the pope calls a ‘mere addendum’ to the pursuit of ‘true and integral development’ (203), then engaging more seriously the economic part of the truth that sets us free would be a good start.

Everyone would gain — and not least those who endure poverty.

Read “Pope Francis and Poverty” at National Review Online.


Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Michael Spevacek

    Pope Francis is being hailed by liberals for his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium in which he rightly says “No” to an economy of exclusion, the idolatry of money, and financial systems that rule rather than serve. What’s most exciting about his letter is that he is just one insight away from moving from a modern liberal to a Classic Liberal.

    Having first hand experience with the economic situation in Argentina he correctly identifies the core problem, lamenting that “Masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized; without work, without possibilities, without any means of hope.” The Pope observes that “Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live.”

    At the national level, “Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all of this we can add widespread corruption.”

    The insight he’s missing is that the poverty, debt and corruption he deplores is caused not by economic freedom, but by the lust for political power.

    His native Argentina is an excellent example. Far from being a free market, Argentina’s economy is one of the most repressed in the world — even more so than Haiti. It’s government is fully stocked with modern liberals who keep expanding their political power and control over people’s lives. The natural result is that 30% of Argentinians live in poverty.

    In contrast, it’s next door neighbor Chile is among the freest economies in the world and has only 11% of its people living in poverty. There is abundant worldwide evidence that economic freedom is the cure for poverty, and that political power and control cause human misery.

    It’s the lust for political power that is really at the core of what the Pope calls “a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person.”

    But the freedom and liberty of the human person is what Classic Liberals champion. Wealth is created when the individual is free to trade his or her work for the goods or services created by another. The simple and mundane freedom to trade a day’s work for a day’s pay brings the individual into society and solves the problems of exclusion and poverty.

    Political power is exactly the opposite. Rather than acquiring wealth by actively contributing to its creation, political power confiscates the wealth created by others and offers nothing in exchange. Excessive political power is what causes crippling debt and widespread corruption at the national level.

    So we say “no” to a politics of exclusion, “no” to the idolatry of political power, and “no” to political systems that rule rather than serve.

    • John Kelly

      Well said.

  • David

    No, there is not a country where there is absolute autonomy of markets, but many in America argue for coming as close to it as possible, advocating that we trust economic entities that have no accountability to the public over governments that do. This cannot be made to harmonize with the teachings of Jesus about money.

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  • Or, in short: economic liberalism is a higher value system and trumps the teaching of the Popes (not just this one).