Be a Saint, Not a Scrooge

We’re not a year into his leadership, but it’s Christmastime and the pope has been much in the news. Let’s look at how he’s doing.

He continues to capture the imagination. When he says something, people look and listen. His approach is not to lecture on the finer points but to embrace, and through the embrace communicate the essentials. An image of the first nine months: Francis on the phone, calling strangers. “Hello, it’s the pope, I read your letter!” He famously eschews the special—the regalia, the car, the palace, the shoes. He wears a cross made not of gold but of common metal. That seems in line with his tastes and nature but carries a symbolic punch: The church should not use its dignity and greatness, its art and finery to separate itself, unconsciously, from the people.

In a world full of loneliness and poverty he says: We are all equal, and equally loved.

Somehow you get the impression that even though he is 76—everyone thinks he’s younger—he’s going to be around a long time. And his papacy is going to be big.

His apostolic exhortation released last week set out general guidelines for the church as it tries to bring people to it. I read the controversial economics section twice, and to me it sounded pretty much like how modern popes talk and think. The world is swept by “consumerism,” by the worship of things, which leaves our hearts “complacent yet covetous.” The desire to acquire blunts the conscience, crowds out God’s voice, and keeps us from hearing the only invitation that will make us happy.

His concerns in this section are classically Catholic and, in their emphasis, economically liberal: “Today we have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” That struck me as a rebuke not only of “Wall Street” but of the media, which report the latter but not the former. Francis continues: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest.” He scores “trickle-down” economic theories “which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” This view reflects “a naive trust” in the economically powerful.

He must have heard about the carried-interest tax break, and corporate welfare.

Pope Francis blessing a man with neurofibromatosis
Pope Francis blessing a man with neurofibromatosis in Saint Peter’s Square, Nov. 6, 2013.

All this has been portrayed as an attack on free-market economic thinking, but it struck me more as an attack on mindless selfishness, greed and go-with-the-flow acceptance of the unrightness of the world. It made me think of Charles Dickens. The pope’s message in part is: Don’t be Scrooge. He cared only for money, had no respect for the poor—he thought they should die and decrease the surplus population—wasn’t the least bit interested in treating his employees justly or with compassion, and missed out on all the real joy of life, until he wised up.

But is Francis saying more than that? Is he hostile to capitalism, and do we see this hostility in the pointed use of phrases such as “trickle-down,” a term the left uses to disparage the idea that created wealth, when invested or spent, spreads and benefits others?

I don’t know, I don’t think so, and we’ll see. I don’t think he’s saying be a leftist but something more revolutionary and fundamental: Be a saint. Be better, kinder, more serious and loving, and help create systems that reflect good, kind, loving people.

The pope has a way of colorfully saying, through words and actions, that the church is on the side of the poor—the materially and spiritually poor—and always has been. I think he’s saying that here: that the Church has a bias for the poor and impatience toward those who would abuse them. And he is speaking not infallibly but as a matter of a worldview rightly shared.

The popes of the modern era have been more or less European social democrats, of the economic left. I’ve never heard a pope worry about the depressive effects of high tax rates, have you? Or the dangers of high spending? Popes are sometimes geniuses but not economists.

And priests are like soldiers. I’ve never met a member of the military who cared much about taxing and spending. Their general view is that taxes should be high enough to allow a great nation to support a first-rate military and keep you safe, end of story. Soldiers aren’t really paid commensurate with their responsibility and importance; it’s not as if they’re in the 60% bracket. Priests tend to be like that, too. They’re not paid much, they’re housed and fed by their order or parish. Taxes are more or less abstract to them. How high should taxes be? High enough for a first-rate country to help its citizens get the good things they need, end of story.

Priests know what’s important in life, and it isn’t money. You have to factor that in when you talk economic policy with them, just as you have to factor in that soldiers would give their lives for you.

Back to Francis, previous popes and economic policy. Our experience forms us. It shapes our thoughts and assumptions. John Paul II and Benedict XVI came from a particular 20th-century European experience. In their youth it was the rise of Nazism, and through their adult lives it was the constant threat of Soviet communism, which was both expansionist—it took John Paul’s Poland and half of Benedict’s Germany—and atheistic. They saw communism as a limiter of freedom and a distorter of the human heart.

The great foe of Soviet communism? America and the West, which had the wherewithal and spiritual strength to resist it. The West brought with it—was rich because of—free-market capitalism. John Paul and Benedict, whatever their private thoughts on how nations should arrange themselves economically, came to have a natural appreciation and respect for what made the West wealthy. They understood its positive utility.

Francis may turn out to be different in this regard. It is possible his appreciation for the wider apparatus of economic freedom does not run so deep. He is from Argentina, not a frontline state in the Cold War, and not necessarily a place—Peronism, corporatism, the military’s influence, the intertwining of money and government—that would give you a dreamy sense of free-market potential. Trickle-down didn’t always work so well there.

We’ll see the implications, if any, of all that.

For now, Francis really has a way of breaking through the media clutter, doesn’t he? At a dinner the other night a smart young priest referred to how Francis’s comments can often be taken a number of different ways. He said, “Maybe he’s just unclear. But he’s a Jesuit, so I assume it’s deliberate.” You mean strategic ambiguity, I said. We laughed because that’s what we both thought. Francis wants to get us thinking about what we should be thinking about. He wants to invite thought.

And he’s succeeding, isn’t he?