“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.