It seems we’ve been getting this Pope Francis guy all wrong. A pope who rejects an “economy of exclusion” and gives heartburn to disciples of Reagan by challenging the Gospel of Trickle Down would really just prefer to raise a bubbly champagne toast to those beneficent Koch brothers. In a recent Washington Post essay that doubles as a love letter to the billionaire industrialists, two wealthy Catholic philanthropists find the pope a helpful prop for pushing hackneyed arguments about poverty, markets and the role of government.
“For us, promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis’s call to love and serve the poor,” write John and Carol Saeman, financial contributors to the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as promoting the “benefits of free markets.” The column gives a nod to the Catholic Church’s teachings about a “preferential option for the poor” before unleashing the usual litany of rightwing talking points about the crippling effect of welfare and Washington’s “insatiable growth.” All that wasted money, the authors lament, could be better used by “philanthropists like us” who could “give to local charities” and to businesses that would “create the jobs the poor desperately need.”
The idea that charity can make up for the damage caused by reckless politicians shredding safety nets that help the elderly, the working poor, pregnant women and children is a cruel myth. In fact, the nation’s largest food bank recently announced it’s stretched so thin that people must be turned away. As economic insecurity rises, Congress has found the moral courage to repeatedly cut billions from the federal food assistance program. This is one reason why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined with evangelicals and other faith leaders to lead a “Circle of Protection” campaign to try and safeguard these vital supports.
Standing in their way are several Catholic members of Congress like House budget chairman Paul Ryan, who once called safety nets a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Ryan dismissed the pope’s searing critique of neoliberal economics with the glib trope now common among those with a vested interested in watering down the pontiff’s message. “The guy is from Argentina,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. They haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina.”
Anti-government ideologues also rarely acknowledge that many faith-based charities rely on government support to survive. Catholic Charities USA, the second largest social service provider outside of the federal government, helped more than 17 million people in 2012 alone.The charity receives more than half of its funding from the federal government.
If these wealthy donors take inspiration from Pope Francis, they are conveniently quiet about Catholic social teaching that extends beyond charitable giving. There is no mention of the church’s centuries-old support for living wages, what Pope John Paul II called the “indispensable” role of unions or Catholicism’s clear challenge to address the “social sins” embedded in unjust economic structures. “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” that raging liberal St. Augustine once said. Pope Benedict XVI may have been viewed as a hardliner, but he also wrote that “justice is the primary way of charity” and warned about the “scandal of glaring inequalities.”
Few progressives know it, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the nation’s largest funders of community organizing, which empowers grassroots activists to challenge institutional injustices that often lead the poor to seek charity. When bishops launched the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in 1969, they aimed to help the poor “develop economic strengths and political power…through specific projects aimed at eliminating the very causes of poverty.” Conservatives attacked the effort from the start, and opposition has only grown more aggressive in recent years.
The authors personally vouch for the fact that the Koch brothers have “a deep concern for the least fortunate.” Their charitable giving is surely laudable. But even as the industrialists take pride in philanthropy, the self-serving policies promoted by a vast network of lobbying groups funded by their largesse rig the game for a privileged few at the expense of struggling families and the working poor. When a Koch foundation recently gave a $1 million donation to the business school at The Catholic University of America in Washington, 50 prominent theologians and clergy reminded the university that the Koch’s opposition to labor rights, environmental stewardship and Medicaid expansion “contradict Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues.”
While the Kochs fight for sweeping deregulation of industries that make them very wealthy, Catholic teaching articulated by popes and bishops over the years assert the need for prudent oversight of markets so that human dignity is not sacrificed by a profit-driven utilitarianism. One of the pope’s top advisors, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, spoke at a conference in Washington last summer and laid waste to the idea that Catholic teaching is compatible with libertarianism. Society must address the “structural causes of poverty and injustice,” the cardinal said in a stinging rebuke to those who think the market’s invisible hand can set us free.
It’s certainly tempting for conservatives to spin the pope or water down his words. We’ve seen this dog-and-pony show before. When Pope John Paul II released an encyclical in 1991 that some on the right cheered as an endorsement of their economic views, Richard John Neuhaus, an influential Catholic priest and theologian, had a Wall Street Journal op-ed ready to go the next day titled “The Pope Affirms the New Capitalism.” The selective reading of John Paul ignored his frequent challenges to the excesses of unbridled capitalism and the “idolatry” of markets.
Pope Francis, explained German Cardinal Walter Kasper during a recent speech in Washington, is not a liberal or a conservative. He’s a radical in the tradition of that itinerant preacher from Nazareth we meet in the Gospel who announced “good news” to the poor in the shadow of the Roman Empire. The marginalized today surely need charity and kindness from the rich, but they will taste justice only when we abandon our comfortable illusions.
John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He is writing a book about how Pope Francis will impact the Catholic Church in the United States and moral debates in American politics. It will be published by Rowman & Littlefield next fall.