Acton Institute Powerblog

Why I Appreciate Pope Francis (Even When We Disagree)

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VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCE“Inequality is the root of social evil,” tweeted Pope Francis earlier this week, raising eyebrows across the globe. Like many conservative Christians I expressed my disagreement on social media. “Um, no it’s not. Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil,” I said on Twitter. I also wondered whether Francis had “traded the writings of Peter and Paul for Piketty”—the French Marxist economist whose latest book on the evils of inequality has become a worldwide bestseller.

Some Catholics, such as Grant Gallicho at Commonweal pointed out that Pope Francis used that exact phrase in his first major document, Evangelii Gaudium. To be honest, while I had read that document, I didn’t make the connection. Perhaps @Pontifex should have thrown in a #EvangeliiGaudium hashtag to make that point clear.

Noting that the quote is from Evangelii Gaudium is helpful, though the context still doesn’t change the fact the claim about inequality being the root of social evil is simply not true. I’m generally a fan of Catholic social teaching (as enthusiastic as a Protestant can be), but Pope Francis’s claims in Evangelii Gaudium show a misunderstanding of economic reality. Take this claim, for instance:

As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

Perhaps there is a lone radical anarchist working somewhere in the banking industry who supports the “absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” But I don’t know anyone else who does (cronyism is a much, much greater problem). And the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation certainly doesn’t exist in the real world. Can Pope Francis show us a country on the planet where markets are even close to being “mostly free” much less having “absolute autonomy?” It’s not likely since such countries are as rare as unicorn ranches.

A few sentences later, Francis adds an equally curious claim: “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”

Surely the Pope understands the “invisible hand of the market” is simply a metaphor for the interactions of people freely deciding how to benefit themselves and their neighbors, right? What would be his alternative, to let the visible hand of the government decide how resources should be allocated? Why would he assume that government bureaucrats know better than free individuals how much bread to bake or who gets how many loaves?

As a Protestant from the Southern Baptist wing of evangelicalism it’s not surprising that I have disagreements with the pope. This side of heaven we’ll probably never see eye-to-eye on matters of theology or ecclesiology. We are also, I’m beginning to realize, never going to agree on economic issues, like the best way to alleviate global poverty.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t share the same concern for the poor or that we cannot find areas of fruitful ecumenical engagement. In the closing section of that exhortation, Francis says:

If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.

Whatever other disagreements I may have with the pontiff, I completely and unreservedly agree with every word in that paragraph. While we may not agree on the solutions or even some of the root causes of the problem, Pope Francis has the best of intentions and seems genuinely interested in working with others in seeking economic justice. I won’t hesitate to point out when I think he is wrong. But neither will I demonize a man who shares my concerns about caring for our most vulnerable neighbors.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Hey Joe: I am coming at this from a very similar viewpoint as you (Southern Baptist with an appreciation for CST) but, giving the Pope the benefit of the doubt, I possibly read his statement a bit differently.

    I wonder whether “absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality” may not, in fact, be code word for ‘crony capitalism’.

    When he says ‘absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation’ is he saying ‘free markets” or is he saying the markets and financial speculation are so powerful they are untouchable – absolutely autonomous (hyperbole perhaps)? It would be extremely ignorant to say they are ‘unfettered’. I give him more credit than that. He may not be an economist, but, sitting in the middle of state-interventionist, Europe (and Italy at that), would he really say that the markets are really free of government?

    I absolutely agree that crony capitalism is a huge culprit. Perhaps what he is saying (and where I stand on this) is that the great power of the markets and financial speculation used by and in the interests of crony capitalists helps create structural inequality. When those with the money have inordinate sway over the politicians and legislators who make the rules, is this not a recipe for self-interest and inequality?

    I am not necessarily disagreeing with your analysis, but I would be curious to see more clarification by the Pope on his statements.

  • Dan Stevens

    Great article by Joe Carter as it points up the unfortunate imprecision of the pope’s remarks. I use the term imprecision rather than error because I believe that the pope is sharing important first-hand observations from his many years interacting with the desperately poor in Latin America but he lacks an economist’s training and language to adequately communicate the import of these observations. Due to the pope’s shortcomings in this regard and the failure of all parties to appreciate the impact of history on their viewpoint, a dramatic communications gulf exists.

    Economies are not concepts separate from the rest of reality. Economies are part of the fabric of societies which are dramatically shaped by history. Much of Latin America’s economies are still shaped by several centuries of colonialism where a small number of European families initially controlled a nation’s entire economy and even now may still have significant control over large sectors of the economy. Most of these nations are still almost completely dependent upon the export of natural resources and agricultural products to sustain their economies, and they have only very recently attempted to provide educational opportunities for their large rural peasant populations. In the context of the global economy, these nations are frankly, the losers in the intense global competition that all nations face. As a result, large segments of these societies are desperately poor. From our point of view, a free market economy works wonderfully. We have
    a very different history and we are the economic winners in the global
    economy. From the pope’s point of view, he sees millions of people who are currently shut out from even the bottom rung of the global economy and he rightly wonders… how will the plight of these people ever change given the enormous and growing gap between the successful nations with extremely strong economies and the unsuccessful nations in which these people live?

    Good question.

  • Jelly Fish

    I just wonder why this much arrogance.. What makes you want to agree Or disagree with the pope and not even bother to explain why. I don’t know who you are. Such poor writing. Maybe the 2-3rd pages will be written in the next few weeks.

    When you say “I didn’t make the connection” and then suggest that because of that they should have had a #evangeliigaudium to make the point clear. Who do you think you are?