Pope Francis has our attention. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, he gives a nod toward liberation theology, a political movement in the Catholic Church that is a combination of Marxist political philosophy intertwined with the theology of salvation from injustice and inequality — which is remedied by government programs to redistribute wealth.
Francis takes a critical view of unbridled capitalism and the inability of the “invisible hand of the market” to point us in the direction of greater social justice. Without the redistribution of wealth and regulated markets, his argument goes, millions will continue to be marginalized, shackled to a lifetime of poverty and inequality.
The answer, the pontiff says, is that governments, “charged with the common good of man,” must take any means to redistribute the wealth of nations to end the exclusion of the poor from the bonanza enjoyed by the privileged.
While the pontiff is making his criticisms and observations in global terms, many Catholics in the United States are reasonably concerned — we are the largest and most successful democratic capitalist country in the world. Curiously, Pope Francis criticizes the gluttony of capitalism in its extreme form but fails to mention the abuses of other ideologies such as socialism, which often uses intimidation and violence, even against the church, for political control.
Unfortunately, Pope Francis may be marginalizing the country that has used more resources to help the poor than any other.
The plight of the poor has always been a great concern socially and politically. Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1965, and since then we have seen poverty rise — and so has government spending. More than $16 trillion has been spent fighting poverty through food assistance programs, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, among others. These are important but mostly temporary safety nets, but several studies indicate that some policies and programs may actually be harmful, creating an environment of dependency that keeps the poor from entering the mainstream economy.
The papal view that government is the only adequate conduit for helping the poor suggests the government runs efficiently and is accountable to God. Not here — we believe that government is accountable to the people it serves. The word “service” is important; community-service giving and sharing are values inculcated from our Protestant ethic , which also values individual hard work and enterprise. The promise of equality of opportunity, rather than the equality of results, is what propels us to extraordinary individual achievements.
The most impressive technological advancements in the last few years that gave rise to Silicon Valley were started by smart young students who wanted to try something different. Today one of these, Bill Gates of Microsoft, heads the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated to eliminating extreme poverty worldwide and enhancing healthcare and education with an endowment of more than $38 billion.
It is a testament to the generosity of the individual human spirit made possible by the coming together of democratic capitalism. The government is not needed to get the Gates Foundation to part with its massive wealth. Many successful social programs, including those of Catholic Charities, stem from the generosity of the wealthy who continue to selflessly give of themselves. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, for example, is soon to receive a very generous private donation of more than $180 million for its restoration.
Of course, Pope Francis is right in defending the poor and the most vulnerable. The causes of poverty are complex; battling these causes equally so. Too many people with limited skill sets in low-wage jobs and too many single mothers heading households are just two contributing factors toward poverty.
The government has spent trillions to eradicate poverty, but it continues to grow. Reliance on the government has not solved the problem, and destroying our system of free enterprise will only make it worse. If you kill the incentives to create and prosper you will have little to give in return.
So it was disappointing to see Pope Francis resuscitate liberation theology, a failed movement, especially for those of us who have seen the damage of Marxism in Catholic churches and schools in Latin America. His work on behalf of the poor is greatly admirable, but his position on government redistribution of wealth has yet to be proven that it abolishes poverty. To the contrary, that approach increases it.