The Piketty pontiff: How Pope Francis is bringing Catholicism back to its anti-inequality roots

Pope Francis sent conservatives into a rage on Friday when — in a comment that had shades of Thomas Piketty — he called for a global movement toward ”equitable economic and social progress,” to be achieved in part by “the legitimate redistribution of  economic benefits by the state.”

Americans are perhaps more accustomed to the “conservative-tinged activism” that has defined the church’s stateside leadership in recent years. However, Francis’ statement on “legitimate redistribution” shouldn’t come as a total shock, even if we ignore the pivot toward economic justice he has already signaled in the year since his election.

In truth, the Pope’s focus on inequality is consistent with a long history of Catholic social justice teaching. In one of the church’s most important encyclicals on the question of economics, “Rerum Novarum” (1891), Pope Leo XIII wrote,

Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create-that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.

Leo XIII also advocated government assistance to the needy, the right to form unions and the right to a livable wage.

Social justice activism also appears in the church much more recently. When Reagan sent goons to South America to crush the leftist uprisings, they weren’t just killing young socialists — they were gunning down nuns.



Even more conservative Catholic thinkers, like the writer G.K. Chesterton, would not be seduced by the idea the wealthy were somehow virtuous (and the poor feckless). In“Orthodoxy,” he writes,

You will hear everlastingly, in all discussion about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is rich.

Obviously, things have changed. American Catholicism has in recent years focused more on conservative political causes. Calls for social justice, meanwhile, have receded into the background — and in some cases even found themselves opposed by prominent Catholics.

Take for example Rick Santorum, one of the most prominent Catholic politicians, who said in 2011,

If you’re low-income … in many states you can qualify for Medicaid, you can qualify for food stamps, you can qualify for housing assistance, and that’s not if you’re in poverty. That’s if you’re above the poverty line. And so you have all of the children growing up in an environment where government is paying you, and then we wonder why do these kids feel they’re entitled to so much?

That is not a healthy thing for children, it’s not a healthy thing for society … Suffering, if you’re a Christian, suffering is a part of life. And it’s not a bad thing, it is an essential thing in life … There are all different ways to suffer. One way to suffer is through lack of food and shelter and there’s another way to suffer which is lack of dignity and hope and there’s all sorts of ways that people suffer and it’s not just tangible, it’s also intangible and we have to consider both.

Contrast that to Pope Leo XIII, who wrote in “Rerum Novurm” that,

Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

Although Santorum’s sentiments certainly don’t constitute the views of all American Catholics, one does wonder what would happen if someone held opinions on abortion this out of line with the church’s position. Would they be run out of town? We know they would.

For a long time it seemed as if someone could be a perfectly respectable Catholic thinker and also believe odious things about poverty and race. (See: Rick Santorum, and also Paul Ryan.) The Church seemed far more interested in abortion, homosexuality and contraception than the plight of the poor. A 2010 Pew study finds many Americans draw their views on same-sex marriage and abortion from the church but few draw their views on government assistance to the poor from the church.

A change in emphasis from the culture wars to poverty would be welcome, and certainly not unprecedented. In a way, Pope Francis can be seen as putting the reforms of theSecond Vatican Council of 1965 back on track after decades of derailment by conservative popes. (As Thomas Ryan, director of the Loyola Institute for Ministry, said in 2012, the goal of Vatican II was “to engage, not condemn.”)

Broadly speaking, the Catholic church’s teachings are socially conservative and economically liberal, although over the last four decades, there has been a strong emphasis on the social conservatism. If Francis shifts the conversation to economic issues, might it actually galvanize change?

If nothing else, it will make Christians confront the fact the Christ was no friend of the rich and powerful. In the New Testament, the only person Jesus ever describes as occupying Gehenna (often translated as “hell”) is a rich man who “dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury,” but nonetheless ignored the beggar Lazarus.

Jesus also once told his followers that, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

There’s a long history of concern in religion — as in the work of Karl Marx — that market systems corrupt virtue and degrade humanity. Pope Francis himself voices this fear. In May of last year, Francis tweeted that,“My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centered mindset bent on profit at any cost.” He noted further that, “We do not get dignity from power or money or culture, no! We get dignity from work.” When discussing the collapse of Bangladesh factories he worried that that many political and economic systems “have made choices that mean exploiting people.”

In his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangeli Gaudium,” Pope Francis writes,

Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.

Although the Catholic Church may not have the influence it once did, religion still holds power in both the international and American political discussion. In his recent Brookings Report, “Faith in Equality,” E.J. Dionne argues that a religious left may be a powerful force fighting for economic justice:

The edge that religious progressives have among the young also presents an opportunity to our religious traditions: a focus on social justice and inclusion offers a more promising path to engaging the energies and allegiances of the new generation than does a continuation of the culture wars. Pope Francis is one religious leader who seems to have noticed this.

The intellectual terrain that the Catholic Church now navigates is far different from now than it was even a few short years ago. Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” is on the top of Amazon’s best-seller lists, and Francis is on his way to becoming one of the most popular popes in history. Some people have dismissed Obama declaration that inequality the “defining issue of our era.” Pope Piketty begs to differ.

Originally published on Salon.

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