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Pulling Few Punches on Economic Issues

Christianity’s season of Lent is underway, a good time to sacrifice a little time to read Pope Francis’ book "The Joy of the Gospel.”

The 224-page document is as timely as prayer, fasting, almsgiving.

The book – available in paperback – “is a vision statement,” says correspondent John L. Allen Jr. of National Catholic Reporter. “Francis denounces what he calls a ‘crude and naïve trust’ in the free market. He rejects what he describes as an ‘invisible and almost virtual’ economic ‘tyranny.’ Specifically, Francis calls on the church to oppose spreading income inequality and unemployment, as well as to advocate for stronger environmental protection and against armed conflict.”

Recently named Time magazine’s “person of the year,” Pope Francis is seeking greater transparency, whether in discussions with nuns or in dealings with the Vatican Bank. Supporting existing doctrine, the Bishop of Rome has criticized clergy who “obsess” over culture-war issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and “hypocritical neo-clericalism.” He’s also condemned “the idol called money” and systems of “exclusion and inequality,” and he replied to a question about his opinion of gay people by saying, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” As to the controversial act of some clergy withholding the Eucharist from some Catholics they judge as unworthy, the Pope said that Communion “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment.”

As to his “Joy of the Gospel,” it’s rather refreshing – and pretty sensible. The Pope writes, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.”

The Pontiff continues, “We have created a ‘throw-away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.”

He adds, “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. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. We can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.”

Pope Francis says, “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. The economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.”

The answer must be more than food stamps and jobless benefits, according to the Holy See, who said, “Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

“We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity’ … education, access to health care, and above all employment. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”

Seemingly anticipating criticism (Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh called Francis a “Marxist”), the Pope accepts it – and dismisses it, writing, “How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference is made to protecting labor and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

Can I get an “Amen!”?  

Contact Bill at; his twice-weekly columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.