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U.S. conservatives frightened & confused by pope's moral world.

Yesterday Pope Francis took to Twitter to launch a new phase of Catholic Social Teaching. With just seven words he shook the foundations of the Catholic moral universe: "Inequalty is the root of social evil," Francis wrote. Both Catholic and non-Catholic observers alike struggled to find their bearings. Joe Carter of the social-justice think tank the Acton Institute responded quickly: "Um, no it's not. Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil." He wondered whether Francis had "traded the writings of Peter and Paul for Piketty"--the economist whose latest book on the unfairness of capitalism has become a global phenomenon.

Catholic Culture poobah Phil Lawler also expressed skepticism, calling the pope's tweet "a fairly radical statement, [and] as an a piece of economic analysis a very simplistic one." He decided that the best way to understand Francis's tweet was to go to the original Latin: that "version of this tweet is even simpler: Iniquitas radix malorum. That phrase has a somewhat different meaning." Lawler's Latin expertise leads him to assert that "iniquitas" might also mean "iniquity" or "injustice," which would "make more sense," even though the Spanish version of the tweet "admittedly looks more like the English."

Non-Catholic Mollie Hemingway was likewise confused. "I don't understand what this is supposed to mean, exactly," she tweeted, later suggesting "envy and coveting" were really to blame for social evil. Former Catholic Rod Dreher found himself flummoxed too: "What does that even mean?" He continued: "Twitter pronouncements like the Pope’s are simplistic and confusing."

It's true. Twitter is not an ideal place to advance complex moral arguments. Wouldn't it be better if the pope developed some of this at greater length, in, say, some sort of letter to the faithful? He might even consider exhorting his people in an apostolic manner, for example, with a title like Evangelii Gaudium or some such, perhaps under a section heading reading "The Economy and the Distribution of Income." Come again? He's done just that? Over the course of several paragraphs? And it's been publicly available for months? Oh. Roll tape. 

Way back in November 2013, Pope Francis released his first major document, Evangelii Gaudium. Maybe you remember it. Scroll to number 202, and here's what you'll find:

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, [173] no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

He goes on:

The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. 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 in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice.

And on:

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but 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.

[Update: David Gibson reports that Vatican officials have confirmed that Pope Francis personally approves all his tweets.]

Is this really news to Catholics and those who have been Catholic and those who profess to follow Catholicism closely? Popes--including the two who were just canonized--have been teaching this sort of thing for a really long time. Here's John Paul II: "The disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty and the existence of some countries and continents that are developed and of others that are not call for a levelling out and for a search for ways to ensure just development for all." What's more, he writes:

Thus, not only the sphere of class is taken into consideration but also the world sphere of inequality and injustice, and as a consequence, not only the class dimension but also the world dimension of the tasks involved in the path towards the achievement of justice in the modern world. A complete analysis of the situation of the world today shows in an even deeper and fuller way the meaning of the previous analysis of social injustices; and it is the meaning that must be given today to efforts to build justice on earth, not concealing thereby unjust structures but demanding that they be examined and transformed on a more universal scale.

But now Pope Francis comes along and suddenly the Catholic and non-Catholic American right goes all Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer? Now they're frightened and confused by Francis's strange moral arguments? Give me a break. The Catholic Church has never baptized the boat-lifting abilities of American-style capitalism. That's never been a secret. Of course, if you get your Catholic Social Teaching mainly from U.S. conservatives, especially those who are fond of marking papal texts in red and gold, you might find Francis's tweet frightening and confusing. But it's really not.

Unless you've been living in a cave.



Commenting Guidelines

Jim P., it's me again.

Legislating a national minimum wage in the present U. S. is a practical impossibility, given the disparity of the cost of living that prevails in the country. Some system of finely calibrated federal income supplements is far more feasible, if there is the political will to pay for it with federal tax dollars.

One huge impediment to dealng with the national dimension of poverty is our federalism system. It so often leads to a race to the top to give tax breaks to corporations and a race to the bottom to minimizee the strength of the safety net.

The general justice principle is pretty clear. A living wage for everyone. Implementation is daunting. But just because it is daunting does not entail that it's morally optional.

A further note. If I really try to fulfil a moral requirement and fail, I have a genuine excuse. If I don't really try (and try again and again), then I have no genuine excuse. That, I think, is the situation we face concerning the living wage issue.

I'd like to note that criticism of capitalism and markets isn't the same as rejection of capitalism and markets. The ability of individuals to make their own arrangements does great things to promote and spread prosperity. However, they are not concerned about justice. Many are unable support themselves with the value of their labor. Futhermore, concentration of wealth and power allows those currently benefiting from the system to distort it to further enrich themselves and to protect themselves from the disruption that is such a large part of capitalilsm's vitality. Capitalism needs redistribution both in order to correct the injustices of chance and to allow the many to counterbalance the power of the wealthy few.

JP - the effort to pass legislation called $10.10 and a gradual process to get there is an honest effort to get to a living wage and is one way to bridge the federalism challenges.  Will $10.10 help someone in San Francisco - no but if the nation as a whole moves toward $10.10 then the prevailing minimum wage in San Francisco will increase.

Always amused when documented research indicates that a $10.10 minimum wage would benefit 15.5 million workers and the counter argument is that some folks (business; usually small business) predicts that it will cost 500,000 jobs.  Is this really a valid enough comparison to just ignore raising the minimu wage?

Your comment above reminds me of John Carr's quote and article - too many folks (Weigel, O'Reilly, Hannity, Acton Institute) argue that decisions such as minimum wage are purely *prudential* and in that game dismiss the common good and the drive to justice.  They start with their ideology rather than with the actual poverty, need, impact on families, and what the gospel calls us to.

I wonder about what that $10.10 per hour is supposed to represent.  It amounts to $21,000 per year at 40 hrs. per week for 52 wks.  That's quite a handy sum for a kid just out of high school, assuming he/she is still living at home for a while.  But how does that work across country?  In a small town in Utah it might be more than a handy sum, while in NYC it woudn't go far at all.  If both parents with two kids work, then I assume that would be a living wage - unless the kids are going to go to college, of course.

Of course, if we knew how to define a "fair wage" I bet a lot of these moral quandaries would disappear.


Ryan - do you know that Milton Friedman happened to agree with your policy suggestion?  He called it the Negative Income Tax.  He would reduce the government payout by some fraction for every dollar in wages the recipient earned, recognizing that it's in the country's interest for  the government to incentivize working.  Here is a description of Friedman's plan:


 Wow! Is the Vatican finally facing what many think is the most important long-term problems facing the world -- limits to growth andover-population?  The Moynihan REport Letter #14)  says that the Vatican Academy of Sciences is beginning a 5-day meeting  to consider the limits of growth, including questions such as:

"Can the global economic growth of the past century continue indefinietely? 

"Can the world's populaiton, which has risen from 1 billioon to more than 7 billion since 1900 continue to grow without limit?"

Does this meeting imply that Francis, the scientist, is ready to reconsider the teaching on contraception?

(Sorry I can't give you an address for the letter.  I got it by email, and Google doesn't yet list it.)




I was aware of that. There are a lot of good ideas in the intersection of liberal goals combined with conservative implementations. The problem is that people on either side tend to hate them.

According to this UCSD site the science conference at the Vatican is going to be a big deal -- partcipants include the Nobe-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and three Nobel science winners.  (I'm starting to suspect that Francis the Scientist is pushing this.  He doesn't do things by half.  And St. John Paul II must be spinning in his grave.) 

Scripps Scientist to Lead Vatican Discussion of Society’s Interaction with Nature | Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego


I have a theoretical problem with minimum wage if the minimum wage is enough to support a family of two on.  Kids who haven't worked before are really apprentices and don't deserve that same pay as an adult who doesn't require close supervision.  That probably covers most recent high school graduates.  

Also, I'm not sure that at this point the country can afford $21,000 per year for apprentice workers. And family situations are so complicated.  Two working spouses with two kids in a decent neigborhood in a house with plenty of room and no college ambitions for the kids are in a very different financial situation from that of two working spouses in a cramped house in a terrible neighborhood with two kids both of whom deserve college but with the city college twenty miles away.

Ann - one of the reasons that the proposal to raise the minimum wage is now considered DOA in Congress, is that only a tiny percentage (less than 3%) of the overall workforce earns at or below the federal minimum wage.  This Pew Research story gives some high-level statistics and profiles.  It also contains a line chart that seems to contradict the common wisdom that today's minimum wage is significantly below the historical norm.  The chart indicates that today's minimum wage is well within historical limits, and in fact, according to my eye-check, is probably a bit higher than the historical average (adjusted for inflation).

As you might expect, the majority of minimum-wage workers (a bare majority, to be sure, but still a majority) are age 24 or lower.  A disproportionate number live in the South.

None of this addresses the justice, or lack thereof, of the minimum wage, and what is hidden by these statistics are those who earn just slightly more than the federal minimum wage, either because they live in a state like Illinois that has a state-imposed minimum wage that exceeds the federal minimum, or because their wages are less than a living wage but more than the minimum.

For example: when I was hired into a minimum-wage job as a teen, I was given a raise after 3 months.  I think it was something like an additional 10 cents/hour.  At that point, I would no longer be a minimum-wage worker as defined in the Pew story.  But I was still making very little money.  If the minimum wage was raised to $10.10/hour, workers in the situation I was in  after my first three months on the job, who earn slightly more than the current minimum, would be "swept up" in the increase, and we'd instantly see a substantially higher percentage of the workforce earning the minimum wage.

My overall point of view is that getting to living wages requires more than legislation.  Employers have an obligation to try to pay as close to a living wage as they can afford.  Workers have an obligation to have skills and habits that justify them being paid a living wage.  And the government has an obligation to pursue policies that allow the economy to generate jobs that pay a living wage.  Arguably, all three parties are failing.


JP - other thoughts....recent study showed that some of the big corporations e.g. Wal-Mart because they pay minimum wage and use part time folks, Wal-Mart basically gets an estimated $1.3 billion in US subsidies.....thus, corporate welfare.

This same process can be used for many retail, fast food businesses, etc. 

Not sure your 3% is accurate.......what we do know is that most minimum wage workers are not teenagers - they are single parents or couples who are in their 30s and 40s and support families.  Your walk down memory lane has little to do with the actual situation today.

HI, Bill, re: subsidies to WalMart: my undestanding is that it would be an indirect subsidy.  It would work like this:

  • WalMart pays its workers at or near the minimum wage and doesn't offer health insurance and other so-called "fringe benefits" to its part-time employees
  • Because of this low pay and few hours worked, some WalMart workers (not WalMart itself, but the employees) qualify for government assistance, such as ObamaCare subsidies, WIC, CHIP, et al.  Not all WalMart workers would qualify: some are teens or young adults who live with their middle-class parents, are still claimed by those parents as dependents, and so on.  But some do qualify.
  • Because, morally, WalMart should be paying a living wage, it can be argued that these government subsidies to some Wal-Mart employees amount to a government subsidy of WalMart.  

I do think there is something to be said for this argument.  So, what is the remedy?  The most straightforward would be to continue and even increase government assistance, so that WalMart employees receive the basic human rights to which they're entitled.  Note, though, that WalMart has absolutely no incentive to change its labor practices so long as the government offers this assistance, which we may think of as supplemental wages or, as you, say, a subsidy.

Another remedy would be for WalMart employees to organize and work with / fight with WalMart's management to win more equitable wages.  That circumvents government assistance with all its attendant problems and issues.  However, we have seen - and the Pew Research article to which I linked alludes to it - that WalMart will exit a marketplace rather than pay its employees more.  

Still another remedy would be to organize a boycott of WalMart stores unless/until they pay their employees more fairly.  I'd be in favor of that.  

Maybe there are other ideas.

As to the numbers I provided in my comment: if you don't agree with them, your dispute is with Pew Research, not me, as I lifted them from that Pew Research article to which I linked.  I would note that the numbers found at this Bureau of Labor Statistics website (part of the US Dept. of Labor) seem to  be in line with the numbers in the Pew Research story.  As I pointed out in my previous comment, though, these statistics don't include people who are making slightly more than minimum wage.  That may account for your impression that minimum-wage workers are older and more likely to be parents.


For all of you who have commented on this thrread, please let me call your attention to a Brookings Institution Study made by E. J. Dionne, et al entitled "Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives." A link to it can be found in Fr. Thomas Reese's column in today's NCR. I've downloaded this document and skimmed it. It looks like an important discussion about, among other things, the topic of this thread. I look forward to reading it carefully and would be glad to know what any of you who also read it have to say about it.

Jim P., Your remedy that Wal-Mart workers organize is being tried at this moment, although their chances are zero to less, given the right-to-work states, the series of labor-kneecapping measures starting with the Reagan administration and continuing through Clinton and Bush, and given the likelihood that you will never hear about their efforts from mass media.

My wife and I have never set foot inside one of those boxes. So that's what boycots will get you.

But one thing would work: If the government subsidized Wal-Mart workers to a level at which they could quit. Unthinkable? No worse than making people continue to put up with current working conditions at the low end of the pay scale.

Tom - we never go to WalMart either.  We do shop at Target, whose prices may be very slightly higher and, we're told, does offer health insurance plans to part-time employees.  And is closer and nicer.  I confess I did call WalMart's pharmacy recently to see if the price for a certain prescription we get each month would be any lower there than the king's ransom we pay to our prescription-benefit-approved pharmacy.  But it wasn't.  So overall I'd give me about a C+ on conscientious consumer behavior.

Of course, to introduce still another consideration/complication: I'm fortunate enough to live in an area with ample shopping options.  In fact, one supermarket chain recently exited our local market, and at least three or four others are now horning in.  (The one that is now gone, owned by Safeway, was unionized.  I understand that at least some of the newcomers are not unionized).  But there are neighborhoods in Chicago that are known as "food deserts" because there are no major chain grocers or retailers in those areas.  Even a WalMarts with its barracuda-like labor practices is greeted as a savior when it builds a location in one of those areas, not only  because of the jobs, but  because it means lots of good stuff at low prices for the residents.  Nothing seems straightforward in trying to analyze these situations.


Reiligious conservatives, not least in the Roman church, are always "frightened and confused" by any reference to reality and, indeed, by any reference to anyhing othe than the handful of favourite texts, however distorted, to which they cling.  The problem is both in the unwelcome intervention of fact and common decency, but also that these threaten to undermine their movitations in becoming religious conservatives:  vanity, malice, arrogance and wilful ignorance.

Bill deHaas,

Benefits for the poor are not corporate subsidies. It makes Medicaid into evil corporate welfare while the tax exemption of my health insurance benefits remain a wondeful program to help the middle class. The difference is that Medicaid is on the budget while the tax exemption encourages employers to pay for health insurance directly rather than through taxes and spending. Would my proposal to provide a basic income and health insurance for all be a massive act of corporate welfare?

The main problem is our weak economy. If we engaged in more fiscal and monetary stimulus, we could shift it to a situation where employers are competing for workers rather than workers for jobs.

Jim Pauwels,

I'm skeptical of food deserts. The statistics I've seen require a certain level of square footage which excludes grocers that provide the full range of foods but with less variety and less of the non food items. I've tried to figure out what the exact definition is, but its proving difficult.

JP, Ryan, and others - here is more evidence and documented research on inequality especially economic inequality  (JP - Wal-Mart - yep, stronger unions and higher hourly wages rather than any type of government program increases....all that means is that the US taxpayer subsidized Wal-Mart)

Here is a link:

Key Points:  (Ryan - most of this research debunks your statement)

In a follow-up to their earlier work, the three political scientists examine how inequality in voice undermines American democracy. (14) It has long been known that individual participation in the political process is stratified by class, but recently class-based interest group political activity is widening. For example, groups representing for-profit corporations outnumber groups representing labor unions by a factor of 50 to 1. Almost three-fourths of all lobbying expenditures stem from business-related organizations. One can safely presume that the Supreme Court's 2010 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, will further distort the issue of political voice.

Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz notes four reasons why "inequality is squelching our recovery." First, the middle class can no longer support the consumer spending that historically has driven economic growth. Second, pressure on middleclass people renders them unable to invest in their family's future through education and small business expansion. Third, the middle class does not provide the tax revenues government needs to make national investments in infrastructure, education, health, and basic research leading to future economic strength. Finally, inequality is "associated with more frequent and more severe boom-and-bust cycles" that make economic life volatile and uncertain. (12)

If it were possible, without overstraining ecological resources, to raise the bottom living standard of everyone in the world to a basic level of capabilities and dignity, would it matter if the world's richest were stratospherically better off? We believe that it would, and that Catholic theologians would do well not to treat inequality and poverty as if they were one and the same, but to pay careful attention to the difference between the two. One major moral feature of inequality is the distance it creates between richest and poorest. Inequality is not simply a matter of the suffering of the poor, although we can never forget that, but a matter of the existence or failure of a community of mutual concern.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Catholic social teaching has evolved as awareness dawned that equality in dignity needed to be instantiated in the policies and structures of societies. Although contemporary Catholicism has not embraced a strict egalitarianism, it has shown a sensitivity to the relative nature of wealth and poverty with a concomitant interest in narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Standing behind this increased concern about inequality is the deep theory of modern Catholic social teaching: the "tacit intuition or vision that undergirds a conception of justice." (70) That vision is communitarian and gives high priority to solidarity as a necessary quality for a just society.  (thus, saying it is just the economy misses the whole argument)

A commitment to the unity of the human family coupled with the stark reality of growing inequality gives urgency to a moral norm of relative equality. The point is not to eliminate all inequalities but to hold them within a range defined by moral limits. This norm invites further reflection from Catholic theologians in response to vast inequalities.




Sounds like a short papal message based on the first reading from last Sunday's Mass, Acts 2:42-47, especially  "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possssions and divide them among all acording to each ones need."  The further we stray from "the communal life," the further we stray into social evil.  It couldn't be more biblical.

 Radical?  No more than it was back then.     

Bill - that paper is must-read.  The author, Kate Ward, appears to be a graduate student at Boston College.  A tone of food for thought.  Thanks for the link.


Late to the party (and will be leaving early). I thought Grant's post was clear and thought-provoking. This was the thought it provoked in me:

Whatever Pope Francis says is unlikely to get any kind of fair hearing because everybody's looking at what he says through their own colored lenses, and it seems to indicate that the Church is more deeply divided than even I thought.

Political conservatives don't want to hear criticisms of capitalism, so you find otherwise thoughtful conservatives like Jim Pauwel initially making either/or statements about how, short of capitalism, it's the only thing short of banditry that helps the poor. (Yes, Jim did try to explain that in more detail later.)

Or you have political liberals like Crystal Watson complaining that the Pope isn't apply notions of inequality to women. 

I'm not trying to criticize either Jim or Crystal here; I'm just illustrating that the papacy is no longer the bully pulpit that transcends politics for American Catholics, and it probably hasn't been for a long time.