A number of journalists and some pundits on the religious left are aiming to own Caritas in Veritate, the new papal encyclical on economics. To them, the encyclical is a polemic against globalization and even the free market itself.
Jacqueline Salmon over at the Washington Post’s “On Faith” page, quotes Vincent Miller, a professor who characterizes the encyclical as a “trenchant critique of capitalism,” before she claims that Caritas in Veritate “places the usually conservative pontiff on the left as to economic issues.” Certainly, the Pope decried immoral profits and a lack of transparency in the business world. In making her point, though, Salmon conveniently ignored the sections of the encyclical that praised trade’s role in lifting “billions of people out of misery,” called globalization a “possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale,” and warned about the dangers of the “all-encompassing welfare state.”
Matthew Boudway at “dotCommonweal,” the blog of Commonweal, similarly concludes that the Pope wants a more leftist approach to economics: “Justice through redistribution is a properly political concern… The market ‘needs to be directed.’” Boudway is not incorrect to say that the Pope expects the state to have the authority to redistribute wealth and to govern the economy. He fails to examine the principle of subsidiarity, though, which Caritas in Veritate reaffirms as essential to the political order. Decisions ought to be delegated to the smallest competent authority. One has to wonder if Boudway’s conception of justice is nearer to the Pope’s idea of governance seeking the common good in the economy, or to what the Pope warningly refers to as the “all-encompassing welfare state” that makes people dependent and unable to live up to their responsibilities. Making social security and public welfare efficient and personal, as well as protective, are balances that need to be struck, but that does not lead us to conclude that Caritas in Veritate justifies point-blank expansions of the current state assistance system.
Writing at “Opinion L.A.,” L.A. Times editor Michael McGough suggests that capitalist Catholics are little more than cafeteria Catholics because of their “discomfort” at the Church’s social doctrine. Not everyone over at Acton is Catholic, but we certainly don’t feel that our free market tendencies are out of touch with our faith lives. Indeed, we are eager to see how the Pope’s calls for transparency, accessibility, and opportunity in markets through reducing trade barriers, expanding micro-credit, and strengthening civil society will help the poor by advancing liberty. We are also hopeful that reminding the world again of the need for subsidiarity and investment rather than bureaucracy and government-to-government aid will help reduce the obstacles that the state can place in front of the poor.
Caritas in Veritate is about how to have a responsible globalization and development that serves moral ends and empowers everyone. It is also about putting morality at the forefront of every sphere of life, from bioethics to economics, and remembering that, when it comes to the world of finance, “it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.”
Catholics who believe in economic freedom should see the new encyclical as an opportunity to highlight our ability to make markets work and to remember that freedom must always be undergirded by a morality aiming at the common good. We cannot allow the Left to reduce this document to just another political manifesto. It is far above that, as a statement of integral humanism, pervasive morality, and the need to ensure that the rules of society are just. It is a teaching document, not a partisan bludgeon.