Pope Francis: Liberals love his 'trickle-down' takedown

  • 29 November 2013
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Pope Francis waves while in Rio de Janeiro on July 26, 2013.
Image caption Pope Francis decried 'the new idolatry of money'

Pope Francis made headlines on Tuesday when he called on the Catholic Church to be more decentralised and to focus on missionary outreach and helping the poor - a recurring theme of his first eight months as pope. Few probably expected the pontiff to take a shot at supply-side economics and "trickle-down theories" by name, however.

In his "apostolic exhortation", Pope Francis wrote:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down 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 opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Needless to say, this has liberal commentators buzzing. An anti-supply-side pope? What would Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher think?

Writes Emma Green in the Atlantic:

The Pope has taken a firm political stance against right-leaning, pro-free-market economic policies, and his condemnation appears to be largely pointed at Europe and the United States. … In pitting the Church against the freemarket, the Pope has added significant heft and legitimacy to progressive, pro-government groups on the left. If it wasn't already clear, the pronouncements confirm that the Church's 20th-century specters are fading, at least in the Vatican. The Pope has officially declared a new enemy.

Heidi Moore of the Guardian contends that Pope Francis is building on the foundation set by the anti-capitalist critics who took to the streets in the days after the recent economic collapse.

"Francis gives form to the emotion and injustice of post-financial-crisis outrage in a way that has been rare since Occupy Wall Street disbanded," she writes. "It's not about discarding capitalism, or hating money or profit; it's about pursuing profits ethically, and rejecting the premise that exploitation is at the centre of profit."

The Los Angeles Times' Michael McGough writes that while Pope Francis's economic exhortations may be attracting attention, it's not the first time a pontiff has taken shots at the economic status quo:

Popes have been irritating Catholic conservatives and free-market enthusiasts since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum in which he praised "workingmen's unions". As a childhood political junkie (and a Catholic), I was aware that some of Pope John XXIII's economic and political pronouncements sat poorly with conservative Catholics such as William F. Buckley Jr.

This time, writes Katie McDonough for Salon, a pope is being moving beyond platitudes, however:

The document is incredibly direct in its call for specific, policy-level action to fight institutional inequality rather than speaking broadly and loftily about poverty as some kind of abstraction or something to be addressed exclusively by charitable giving at the community level, as some of his predecessors have been content to do.

But how will conservative Catholics react to Pope Francis's latest statements? Last month, Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote of the unease some have been feeling about the Pope's moves:

Their anxiety is not that the new pope is about to radically change church teaching, since part of being a conservative Catholic is believing that such a change can't happen. Rather, they fear that the center he's trying to seize will crumble beneath him, because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense.

And they worry as well that we have seen something like his strategy attempted before, when the Church's 1970s-era emphasis on social justice, liturgical improvisation and casual-cool style had disappointing results: not a rich engagement with modern culture but a surrender to that culture's "Me Decade" manifestations - producing tacky liturgy, ugly churches, Jonathan Livingston Seagull theology and ultimately empty pews.

Before Pope Francis's recent announcement, Steve Skojec wrote on his blog: "I cannot and would not presume to judge the heart of Pope Francis. I only know that I see the symptoms of something emerging that is not in line with tradition, or with the mission of the papacy. Something that is enervating orthodox Catholicism and energizing those who have hated the Church to see in her an ally.

Meanwhile, liberals are holding out hope that the Pope will herald a new generation of Catholic leadership - one that will make the same sort of sweeping reforms instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1960s.

"One thing to remember is that the Church is still producing seminarians, and the new ones are going to be trained in obedience to this guy's ideas," writes Charles P Pierce for Esquire. "That was how we wound up with a great generation of progressive priests during and after Vatican II."

Of course, Vatican II was 50 years ago, and it is still generating heated debates.