Pope Francis and the Rich
“Today’s structures of sin include repeated tax cuts for the richest people, often justified in the name of investment and development”: so said Pope Francis. Dan Mitchell wrote a pointed article on the Pope’s latest comments.
That the Pope disapproves of tax cuts to “the rich” is hardly news. Ever since ascending to the Holy See, Francis has invested time and effort in placing himself, so to say, firmly on the left. While sometimes the Pope has praised the virtues of entrepreneurs, generally speaking he subscribes to the view that the world economy is a pie and if “speculators” get richer, somebody is getting poorer at the very same time. In a sense, this is hardly news: most people see things this way and there is no reason why the Pope should be economically savvier, or more free-market leaning, than your doorman or yoga teacher. Or is there?
A reason by which the Pope should be economically savvier than your yoga teacher is that, different than the latter, he is well equipped with an army of experts ready to write on his behalf, whenever he is supposed to be speaking on a certain subject. The Pope should not necessarily know better personally, but his advisers should suggest him, at least, some caution in framing his own speeches.
In this last case, the use of the words “structure of sin” is quite disturbing. The Pope is entering the public debate and a quintessential political discussion: how much should be paid and by whom? He does so using his own vocabulary (he speaks of “sin”, not of unwise decisions or dangerous consequences) and clearly draws a line that divides good from evil. The temptation to read his words as a moral indictment of people who support tax cuts for the rich, or for businesses, will be hard to resist. In a sense, such a statement reminds of Francis describing it “an honor” to be “attacked” by American right-wingers. Two cheers for the Pope’s combative spirit, but I suspect many an American Catholic was troubled, if not outraged, by such blunt words.
The Pope seems to consider wealth per se a mark of moral abuse. His defenders would react by saying that his views on wealth are actually more nuanced. I don’t doubt it, but I think in some sense it does not matter. Pope Francis is, in many ways, is the Catholic Church’s Donald Trump. He is a great simplifier: his communication style and, up to a certain extent, his very success are predicated on a certain immediateness and simplicity. His economic worldview comes across as a triumph of simplicity. If the poor exist, it is because the rich exist: so whatever can be labeled as “helping the rich” means damaging the poor. He has no concern with economic development, as he seems to be more interested in providing for the poor today, than uplifting them tomorrow.
The strongest point Pope Francis’s critics have, to me, is that the Pope does not seem to focus on a message targeted at rich people, demanding they renounce their goods for the benefit of the poor – but rather to speak of policies and actions that ought to affect political systems in their entirety and not single individuals. He does not ask the rich to renounce their riches, he deems evil those who think economic development is better attained by incentivizing enterprise, rather than by redistribution. The Church is hardly a non-political institution, but perhaps Francis is the one who is choosing the economic battleground with an intensity whose only forerunner is, perhaps, Paul VI. On Paul VI, by the way, P.T. Bauer wrote a splendid essay, which could speak about People Francis too, reprinted in From Subsistence to Exchange.