A few days after Ronald Reagan was reelected president in 1984, a committee of five American Catholic bishops released the first draft of a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy that, in the words of New York Times economics columnist Leonard Silk (aka my late father), “reads like an assault on the Reagan Administration’s economic, social, foreign aid and military policies.”
Drawing on the Vatican’s longstanding critique of capitalism, the bishops themselves advocated policies to promote greater equality of income and wealth so long as there were ”poor, hungry and homeless people in our midst,” and, Dad wrote, they “excoriated national complacency over unemployment.” Contra the president’s full-throated free-market ideology, they were “skeptical about tales of the beauties of perfect competition or the beneficence of the invisible hand of the market.”
The bishops expected some criticism from conservative co-religionists, but what they got was more than they bargained for. Even before the draft was released, there appeared a critical letter from 29 lay Catholics led by the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Novak and former Treasury Secretary William Simon, and the attacks didn’t let up. It was a significantly watered-down version that the entire bishops’ conference finally voted through in 1986.
Now, three decades later, comes Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis’ extended redefinition of — and exhortation to the faithful to embrace — the so-called “New Evangelization.” What’s remarkable is how central the pope makes improving the lives of the poor to “the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world.” As he conceives it, that means more than private charity: “an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte,’ or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience.” It also means more than supporting government welfare programs, which he calls “merely temporary responses.” The new pope’s New Evangelization entails an obligation to push for solutions to “the structural causes of poverty.”
Francis is only too well aware of the intellectual opposition to this understanding of the Gospel mission — opposition now led in American Catholic circles by the likes of George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute.
In this context, 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 naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
Unsurprisingly, the pushback against Francis began almost as soon as the letter dropped. “In Francis, we see a charming and charismatic advocate (complete with large megaphone and the attention of a sizeable slice of the world) for economic policies of a type that have failed and failed and failed again,” wrote NRO’s Andrew Stuttaford.
My old man, who was no fan of Reaganomics, ended his column on the economic pastoral by complimenting the bishops on their timing: “By deliberately avoiding involvement in the election campaign, they may have a far more profound and lasting effect on national economic thinking and public policy.” Such was not to be in a world that was just becoming re-enchanted with the sacralized free market.
But rolling over five liberal bishops in the salad days of Reaganism was one thing. Rolling over a rock star pope In the wake of the Great Recession is something else. Whether “The Joy of the Gospel” has a profound and lasting effect remains to be seen. But the cultured despisers of Vaticanomics now know they’re in for a fight.