A Sign of Contradiction

As you might expect, many American conservatives went into a toddler-like meltdown over Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). This is not surprising since in it he condemns their favorite economic ideology in terms so straightforward and explicit that the Catholics among them will have to rollout some very serious rhetorical machinery to explain it away.
Let us look at some key passages. In the face of an “economy of exclusion and inequality,” says the Holy Father,

“...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 of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting...” (53)

Moreover, the explosive growth in wealth inequality—in the US, it is has returned to pre-1929 levels—is

“...the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.... In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.” (56)

The Pope is not mincing his words here, and his words have clear implications. Most strikingly, the dominant economic ideologies of the American political Right stand condemned: one cannot be a neoliberal of the Chicago School stripe—let alone of the Austrian School!—and a good Catholic, it seems. More or less, this means the ideologies of mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party, Ronald Reagan and Ron Paul.

But it also means the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party. The rise of the Economy of Exclusion has actually become more acute under Obama as the result of administration policies of the sort condemned by Francis.

The media have barely been able to contain themselves over the Dow’s recent record closing at over 16,000—it has doubled since 2009—along with the S&P’s 500 stock index at over 1,800, also a new record. Also since 2009, CEO pay and corporate profits have soared right along with the stock market, and 95 percent of all income gains during that same period went to the 1 percent.

At the same time, the household income of the average American fell by over 8 percent, and the employment rate remains less than half of what it was before the crisis. Since 2008, the number of food stamp recipients has gone up by a shocking 70 percent, from around 30 million to almost 50 million. From 2012 to 2013, one million new food stamp recipients have been added to the rolls. Since the start of the financial crisis, there has been a 72 percent increase in homelessness among children enrolled in public schools. And on and on.

Now, the financial collapse of 2007 might have been the result of the operation of the free market, but the gigantic increases in inequality have been predictable outcomes of the policies of the Obama Administration. It was under Obama that the Fed began using taxpayer money to buy the “toxic” assets of the banks. At $40 billion per month, this has been in effect a massive redistribution of wealth from working people to the wealthy. Obama also agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and refused to help reign in excessive executive compensation at financial institutions bailed out by taxpayers. In addition, there have been unprecedented attacks on the kind of social spending that is of direct benefit to ordinary Americans. The 2011 debt ceiling deal will cut such spending by $1 trillion over ten years while the “sequester” cuts will slash it by a further $1.2 trillion. This, along with the recent cuts to food stamps and the impending end of extended unemployment benefits. Again, I could go on and on. It is not difficult to see that the result of such policies must be widening inequality and increasing marginalization and misery for the majority.

So American liberals won’t find much satisfaction in Evangelii Gaudium either. The fact is that both of the major U.S. political parties defend an economic system the pope condemns as “unjust at its root” (59). What then is the alternative? Articulating a workable answer to this question is the call of this challenging and inspiring document.

Doran Hunter