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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.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Any good evangelist knows his audience.

I don't think Papa Francesco worries too much about the "Carters," the "Lawlers" or the "Hemingways" of the world who frequently appear to have infused knowledge about "the foundations of the Catholic moral universe."

I would speculate that all those years riding the bus around Buenos Aires rubbing shoulders with real people may have shaped this pope's sense of social inequality.

Perfectly expressed, Grant. The reason Francis of Assissi embraced poverty was mainly to point out that all wars and conflicts are motivated by greed. So by setting an example he directed others to look at the more excellent way. Which another guy by the name of Paul also showed. One can vacilate over Evangelium Gaudium by saying this meant that and this does not mean what it says. But a twitter tweet of the essence is unavoidable. There is just no other exegesis available. Amazing irony that people are perplexed by words which say exactly what Francis has been saying from the beginning. 

Will Michael Novak now give up his gold chains? Will George Weigel allow poor people to join the Ethics and Public Policy center? Will Timothy Dolan settle for a more modest Cathedral? Will Frank Langone disavow Mitt Romney?

Jesus said it long ago that it is difficult tor the rich person to enter heaven. Mainly, because s/he feels the riches are hers not a gift of God which are better shared than invested in the fifteenth yacht. Yet too many church leaders have worshipped money. Even insisting that the money should  be given to them rather than the poor. As if they will really give use it for the poor. The irony is that the more wealth is pursued the emptier the person's life is. As a recent article in Vanity fair quoted:  “If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to.”

Grant - why do you think conservative Catholics are "frightened"?  "Somewhat dismissive" seems more descriptive.


If the Acton Institute and its ilk are this upset by a tweet, imagine how they'd react to:

"All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need."  I'd love to hear Fr.Sirico's homily on that...

I'm not challenging what the Holy Father tweeted but is there any possibility that he was also going beyond economic inequality?  Unfortunately, life is fraught with comparisons and people are sometimes deeply wounded when they're reminded that they're not as beautiful or as bright or as socially nimble as someone else. 

I am not of a good age to be taught by tweet or even haiku. My first reaction was: Is inequality the sin or the effect of sin? Fortunately, Grant, like you I remembered where I saw something like the tweet (it turned out to be the exact tweet) before, in context.

It was good to "roll the tape," and I commend you for it. Still, it might have been more fun to just let them go on until someone brightly suggested that, like capitalism, South American inequality is nothing like North American inequality. I mean, there are some analyses we preserve and treasure and look at for laughs when the gray winter days return.

Anyway, Francis' tweet was better than two recently sanctified tweets: "Ah, the mystery of evil" and "It's a long way to Tipperary,"

The University of Notre Dame is proposing to renovate its football stadium to the tune of 400 million dollars.


If people are called to full participation in divine life as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, and temples of the Holy Spirit, this implies fundamental dignity and equality. The same principle applies to participation in social life. One can quibble until the cows come home about the “naturally” inequitable distribution of talents and resources among persons and societies, but it seems pretty clear to me that our faith calls us to address inequities that deny persons the beatitude which is their heritage “on earth as it is in heaven.” Free-market capitalism isn’t good news for the poor, captive or oppressed.


Free-market capitalism isn’t good news for the poor, captive or oppressed.

As a path out of poverty, it is, short of banditry, the only option we have.  Our public responsibility as followers of Christ in today's world is to determine how to make the material blessings that flow from the marketplace available to those who are excluded, while ameliorating its corrosive tendencies.



Maybe a Jesuit college like Seattle University can set an example by cheerfully allowing their adjunct faculty to unionize.

Good grief! Free-market capitalisim or banditry? Those are our only options? I miss Gene McCarraher.

 the material blessings that flow from the marketplace

Dear Marketplace God, may your material blessings flow upon me. Amen.

Jim Pauwels: We have the option of highly regulated capitalism with a social safety net, which works better that either banditry or free market capitalism.  When we had free market capitalism from the nineteenth century to the 1930s, the human cost was enormous.

I wish Francis would apply  "Inequalty is the root of social evil"  to  the way the church treats women.

Claire - yes, our God is, indeed, the God of the marketplace.  And the home, the church, the university and the rest of his creation.

Anne E: regulated capitalism with a social safety net is free market capitalism.  It's the world we actually live in today. 



Chris Loetscher (1:52 pm)

Well said.


As an aside, US conservatives aren't the only ones who get all kinds of baffled and frustrated by the pope, what he says, doesn't say, what he does or doesnt do.

Plenty of US "liberals" have gone ape and continue to do so whenver the pope fails to say or do things in the exact way they want. 

Which I find equally amusing and eye roll worthy.


Re "The Tweet" and "The Joy of the Gospel:"

I take it that "The Joy of the Gospel" is a call to sustained critical reflection, as a clear statement that the capitalism we have known is woefully inadequate and has badly compromised the lives of numerous people and continues to do so. It is not, though, a statement that prescribes what an adequate economic order should look like nor does it lay out a specific economic road that would lead to such an adequate order. Instead, it calls for all of us, whatever our economic status, to take up the challenge, the arduous and necessarily protracted challenge, of working through the political, cultural, and moral issues that must be addressed if the present capitalist economic order is to undergo  constructive reformation.

Furthermore, every economic order is necessarily constrained by the always limited resources available to it. Accordingly, there is no "definitive" economic order to be found or constructed. Melioration is always the order of the day. So is modesty.

None of this denies anything of the sharp critique Pope Francis has made of the preaviling capitalist order. But it does acknowledge the always present finitude of all human institutions, policies, etc. Just because many conservatives seem to claim to know that this capitalism is unavoidable or the best that we coupld possibly have at this juncture, it doesn't follow that those of us who disagree with them can claim that we have a ready set of reforms athat are sure to be more respectful of human dignity.

Claire - yes, our God is, indeed, the God of the marketplace.  And the home, the church, the university and the rest of his creation.

This is trivial in one sense, untrue in another. Yes, God is present everywhere, the one creator of all that is. In this sense, our God is also the God of death row and skid row and the heroin den. But if we are talking about Who, or What, "the marketplace" worships, it isn't God; it's Mammon.

As a path out of poverty, [free-market capitalism] is, short of banditry, the only option we have.

This is neoliberal boilerplate—another version of Margaret Thatcher's "there is no alternative." Unless by "free-market capitlalism," Jim just means "legal commerce," we do have other alternatives to banditry. Lots of them, in fact. Some of those alternatives have been tried and found wanting; some have been found wanting and left untried; and some are working quite well today. Which brings me to Jim's next comment.

Anne E: regulated capitalism with a social safety net is free market capitalism.  It's the world we actually live in today.

Not to quibble, but "regulated capitalism with a social safety" covers a lot of different ground. It covers Sweden and it covers the United States. Arguably, it also covers China. It covers what we have now and what social democrats like Thomas Piketty would like us to have. The more markets are regulated, the less they can be described as "free." The larger the role of "the safety net," the smaller the role of capitalism in determining who has what.

Chris -- Here I come to save the day.  It's nice to know that someone misses me.

Jim P. -- Free-market capitalism or banditry?  Come on, Jim -- you're smarter than that.  There are alternatives, no matter what Margaret Thatcher thought; this isn't the "end of history," despite what Francis Fukuyama thought.

I've covered this ground before responding to previous posts, and many readers don't agree with me, but I'll tell my story, and I'm sticking to it.  Even if one doesn't believe, as I do, that "free-market capitalism" is itself a form of thievery, one has to admit that it rests historically on massive and often bloody acts of banditry:  the dispossession of peasants through enclosure; the dispossession and genocide of native Americans and other colonial peoples; the deskilling of artisans and craftsmen through mechanization and managerial control; and now, under monopoly-finance capitalism, the rampant and openly touted robberies of financiers.  Anyone who reads Thomas Piketty's book knows that we are indeed well on our way back to a "patrimonial" society.  (I'd even argue that we may be morphing into something like a kind of corporate feudalism.)  

Do I wish Pope Francis had been clearer about what he meant in his tweet?  Sure.  Do I think Twitter is the best venue for making statements about social inequality.  No.  But as it stands, I don't see a real problem with his statement.  I think some of the reaction to it is motivated by a misconception of what we on the left mean by equality.  The right often believes that equality means homogeneity, sameness, a levelling or erasure of all individuality.  We would argue that, if history is any guide, the theory and practice of individualism is the greatest enemy of individuality, and that capitalism has been one of history's most potent forces for homogenization -- what else is mass production but the voluminous production of sameness?  What else is contemporary mass culture but the packaging and selling of "difference"?  The abolition of social inequality -- which would entail no longer having to kowtow to the demands of the monied and propertied -- is the precondition for the flourishing of individuality, not for its demolition.




Mr. Boudway - appreciate your analysis and comment.  You say a lot in a few sentences.

It is good to remember that "limited resources" are only limited by the policy of the ones in control. When we choose to spend trillions on wars of destruction and death and then say we can't afford a few millions to innoculate children against disease or rebuild a community devastated by tsunami, hurricane or earthquake, are we really being honest and Christ like? If we were all in the same lifeboat, the captain would command that existing rations of food and water be distributed equally among the survivors, not just those who have also a lifejacket.

Capitalists have forever sought the government's help to secure or preserve their interests. Why do they spend billions on lobbyists if not to augment their interests. The recent FCC decision to favor those with money to get faster speed on the internet is another example. New companies would be at a distinct disadvantage. The collusion by Google, Apple, Intel and others to not compete for recruits  is definitely not true market. The reaction of the taxi industry and the real estate industry to startups is another example. The unlimited contribution allowed by this Supreme Court is another example of inequality. That money is paying for those who will grant favors. Period. So the regulation can be just as if not more unequal.  

No question that a free market system is best when it is truly free. Certainly better than dictatorship.  But it is not free because bullies will always pay to further inequities. This is how the Mafia started. They saw no equity in the courts. This is what the Rev. Louis Gigante, brother of the notoius "Chin", repeatedly claimed. 

So it is a matter of taming the bullies. Trouble is the hierarchs have consistently catered to the bullies. As long as they got their share. And there are plenty of paid underlings who kill their own to keep others in power. 

Francis has his hands full. Starting with the Vatican bank. 


One thing that needs more emphasis, and Grant gets to it on the margins, is that Francis is being very traditional in what he's saying. All you need is a cursory look at over a 100 years of CST:

But if we are talking about Who, or What, "the marketplace" worships, it isn't God; it's Mammon.

"The marketplace" doesn't worship anyone or anything.  If mammon is worshipped in the marketplace, it is people who are worshipping it.  Dismembering the marketplace won't cure that ill.  The fellow who spoke that line about God and mammon lived in an economic world that wouldn't be recognized as a free market economy, yet apparently mammon worship was a spiritual ill worth mentioning in that time and place.

Yes, some of the people who take part in the contemporary marketplace worship mammon. Too many.  Perhaps the Holy Father's prophetic words will touch some of them.  Yet there are also many people in our marketplaces who worship God - and order their market behavior accordingly. I don't know to what extent such folks are visible to a pope, but every American pastor and parish minister knows this to be the case.  Some of those who do attempt to order their market behavior to Christian values are severely criticized on dotCom, cf. the Greens.  And for some reason, God has seen fit to bless abundantly some people who participate in the marketplace, and they respond by giving generously to those not as abundantly blessed.  I get solicitation mail and phone calls virtually every day from universities, charities, and even religious magazines who hope I may be one of those folks.  

Not to quibble, but "regulated capitalism with a social safety" covers a lot of different ground. It covers Sweden and it covers the United States. Arguably, it also covers China. It covers what we have now and what social democrats like Thomas Piketty would like us to have. The more markets are regulated, the less they can be described as "free." 

Yes, there are a lot of possibilities for regulated capitalism with a social safety net - many more possibilities than what we see implemented in the world today.  And yes, economic freedom isn't a zero/one, off/on dichotomy.  There are infinite degrees of freedom, and freedom must be balanced against other goods.  But we can look about us and see that, for the American people, economic freedom is a core value, and one that they're not likely to sacrifice willingly.  Perhaps Americans value economic freedom more than Swedes.  That indicates that the range of policy options for the US may not be the same as the range for Sweden. 


Hi - if anyone is interested: before I visited dotCom this morning and saw Grant's post, some conservative friends of mine had emailed me about the Pope's tweet and asked me what I thought the pope meant.  FWIW, I'm pasting below my response to them.  It is true that I pulled a different set of paragraphs than Grant did from the Holy Father's exhortation, but I think we're in sync regarding what the Pope meant.

My response to these friends:

I would say that it is for the Holy Father to explain what he means by that brief statement.  And I’d suggest that this passage from his document “The joy of the Gospel” (cf paragraphs 52-67) probably is the right context for understanding what he meant.

A couple of other thoughts:

  • I note that he didn’t say “income inequality”.  He said “inequality”.  Undoubtedly, income inequality is a large part of what he has in mind (see the link I provided above for his thoughts on income inequality), but income inequality doesn’t exhaust the possibilities of inequality leading to injustice.  As someone who is pro-life, I have reflected on the political inequality of a baby in the womb who lacks all political rights and many protections, as compared with a mature adult with voting and other political rights.  We could also think about the inequality of how we treat immigrants, racial minorities, the elderly – there are many forms of inequality, not all of which can be reduced to economic inequality.
  • Any pope’s “scope”, when speaking about social, political and economic matters, typically is not the American economy and the American political system, but rather that of the entire world.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any applicability to American conditions and events, as we are dominant economically, militarily and culturally.  But he may have very different and non-American things in the back of his mind in writing some of the things he writes.
  • It’s probably important, too, that he’s a Jesuit.  The Society of Jesus focuses on the least of our brothers and sisters, those most in need, those who are most at the margins.  This is a good thing, and it’s a good challenge for those of us who are rather comfortably ensconced in the American middle class to try to see things from another point of view.
  • I think it’s also legitimate to note that he (and his predecessors) haven’t had sustained exposure to all of the advantages and blessings that come from American economic, political and social life.  It’s not disrespectful to note that he may have gaps, limits and even blind spots.  No one person can know and understand everything about everything.
  • Popes don’t speak ex cathedra on economic matters.  Ultimately, his interest in this topic is religious and moral.  I happen to think he’s right to call attention to situations of inequality and injustice that prevail in our economic and social life.  We Americans have a lot of good things going, but things are not perfect in our society and our culture.  There is a lot of room for improvement.  And the same can be said for other societies and cultures around the world.


@ Joseph Komonchak:  Face it, at ND the football stadium is the Goose that laided the Golden Dome!



 I think some of the reaction to it is motivated by a misconception of what we on the left mean by equality.  The right often believes that equality means homogeneity, sameness, a levelling or erasure of all individuality.

I don't know how else to understand vast tax-and-redistribute schemes except as a means to the end of equality of outcomes.



JIm, what you call the safety net was invented right here in the United States, not in Sweden. Perhaps Americans value what you call economic freedom more than Swedes do, but you cannot infer that by examining economic policy in the United States, which is determined not by what most Americans want but by what industry lobbyists and the one percent demand. (Most Americans believe that wealth distribution in the United States is, and should be, what it actually is in Sweden.)

You're right that, strictly speaking, "the markeplace" doesn't worship anything, which is why I put the phrase in quotation marks. I was personfying the marketplace, just as we're personfying greed when we use the term Mammon. But the logic of capitalism does reward those who make profit and the perservation of wealth their chief purpose. Christian defenders of capitalism often say that wealth and profit are morally neutral, which is true as far as it goes. Desire, as such, is also a morally neutral category, but those who devote their lives to satisfying their desires—those who make that their goal—won't spend their lives doing the will of God. Likewise, those who make maximal profit their chief goal are fooling themselves if they believe they will thus end up doing the will of God as a kind of side effect to making themselves rich. When it comes to political economy, the will of God is justice, which is never just a side effect of prosperity. Just as the fulfillment of God's will sometimes require that we resist or deny our natural appetites, the pursuit of justice will require us to resist or deny our desire for peronal wealth. There will often be a choice between justice and profit, which is another way of saying man cannot serve both God and Mammon.

You write, "for some reason, God has seen fit to bless abundantly some people who participate in the marketplace, and they respond by giving generously to those not as abundantly blessed." The fact that someone has a lot of money doesn't mean that God has seen fit to bless him with it. Al Capone had a lot of money; so does Hugh Hefner. And I have no reason to doubt either man's personal generosity. But their wealth is not evidence of God's blessing, any more than victory in war is a reliable indicator of God's favor. What would you say if someone suggested that God saw fit, "for some reason," to bless the American settlers as they moved West but not the American Indians—because, well, because the settlers won and the Indians lost. History may be written by the winners, but God's judgment is no respecter of persons.

Comments here make excellent arguments against moving away from a hunter-gatherer society. In this view we never should have invented writing.  Think how much power that innovation gave to the literate and how much more the masses could be controlled compared to an earlier more egalitarian society.  Ditto for thousands of other inventions - unless you can guarantee a prosperous economy without unequal incentives.

At the risk of being tedious, let me say that the exchanges between Jim Pauwels and Matthew Boudway strike me as being doomed to irrelevancy. Yes, Jim, popes are not infallible about economic matters, etc. Yes, Matthew, sometimes we cannot serve both God and mammon.

Let's also agree that the present way in which capitalism appears to be practiced in the U. S. is badly in need of modification. So what?

Until we agree boththat something meliorative CAN BE DONE about present c apitalist practice, then it is unlikely that anyting will be done. And until we agree that the problem of finding alternatie to prevailing capitalist practices rrequires experimentation, a willingness to be self-critical, and some recognition that others may have betterideas than we do, then prospects for any humane melioration look dim.

I donot have the expertise to recommend specific polikcies. I have no hesitancy, though, in saying that everyone is entitled to basic shelter, food, medical care, and political respect. Any policy or proposal ought to be assessed in terms of whether it holds out the reasonable prospect that the suggested policies will indeed be meliorative in these respects, not only domestically but also globally. That's no trivial test. And anyone who makes any significant proposal ought to recognize how hard it is to pass this test.

Nonetheless, the manifest injustices of the prevailing capitalist model are so severe that the search for effective alternatives, arduous as it is, is a practical imperative for anyone who wants to heed the Gospel call to care for the poor.

Thanks, Bernard....thought that JP, you, and Mr. Boudway would enjoy this TED talk:

Would suggest that the monkey on the left is fed up with folks who say - but, you have *opportunity* so that makes everything *just* and *equal*

" I get solicitation mail and phone calls virtually every day from universities, charities, and even religious magazines who hope I may be one of those folks.

One of the worst errors in is in allowing so many well to do people to go non-profit. One way to aid the problem of inequity is to eliminate non-profit altogether. If you make money pay taxes. And you will not be allowed to establish a base in London the way Pfizer plans to do. There would then be a lot more money to help the poor.

The other prodigious mistake is when Augustine and Jerome persuaded Christians to give them the money to give to the poor. Not the poor directly. Despite the fact that Jesus said give it to the poor. Not the church.

Just look at all the money that would be available to the poor. There might even be enough to created decent pay for the Middle Class. 


"Free market" doesn't mean simply freedom from government intervention.  It means freedom from economic rigging of various sorts including internal rigging such as price fixing and monopolies.  Without some government regulation the market loses competitiveness to the unscrupulous.  Marx was right about that much.  


The problem is that "totally free market capitalism" is a self-defeating concep because when business people are totally free some of them will cheat and ultimately destroy the freedom of others.  So freedom must be restricted to some extent for capitalism to work.   A totally free market would work only if all business people were saints. The problem is how much policing is necessary, when, and how.  


As to participation by all in the system, it can be a good thing for an economy when some people -- some -- lose jobs.  There's the old saying "If nobody ever lost a job we'd all still be digging potatoes".  In other words, temporary loss of jobs for the sake of efficiency benefits all in the long run, so long as there is help for those who have to lose their jobs until new jobs become available.  We have a safety net, but it has enormous holes in it. Many millions still go hungry here, and many are children, especially in the summer when they don't get free meals at school.


As to "fair wages" nobody has figured out a formula for figuring them yet.  Even Keynes, who did try to find a definition/formulation, gave up. Let's hope the newly discovered theorist Piketty will give the problem a shot.  (Has anyone actually read his book yet?)


As to luxuries, if everyone bought only the necessities -- that is, if they never bought sports tickets, artworks, extra clothes, books, etc. -- then a large proportion of the populace would lose their jobs permanently.   As always, what is wrong is when many earn much but some earn not much or none.  It's in such cases that "inequality" is wrong.


We haven't talked about equality of opportunity yet.  That would also be a basic characteristic of a fair system, and it seems that one of Piketty's main contentions is that opportunities have gotten more and more restrictive in the current Western systems, thereby vastly stifling competition.


I think we need to do a lot of wondering about *why* some people pursue mountains of money as if it would make them happy.  Sure, money can contribute to happiness insofar as it makes good things affordable  But why this scramble for fat bank accounts?  Of itself, money is only a tool.

Bernard - I appreciate your interventions.  I may try to respond to others later today if I can find the time.  

I guess my basic point of view is that, even though capitalism has warts, that is not sufficient reason to give up on it.  That it has more warts now than it did a few generations ago (which is debatable, but let's suppose it's true for the sake of conversation) implies that essentially the same system was capable of having fewer warts, and this after, in a still earlier time in history, it had more warts.  It seems that capitalism can be realized in ways that are more just and less just, and because it may (or may not!) be trending in a less just direction right now, doesn't mean that the trend is inevitable or irreversible.  I also think that, if the 20th century taught us anything, it is that the evils that come from massive rip-and-replace of economic systems far outweigh whatever benefits are supposed to flow from the new system.  Let's be realistic and work within the framework of where we are now, acknowledging not only the problems, but also the virtues and blessings.  Capitalism still works for a majority of Americans, and for a quickly increasing number of people worldwide.  Let's figure out how to extend those blessings to those who are still excluded and exploited.


I see Peter Nixon gave us the Latin original of the Holy Father's tweet in a separate post, "Iniquitas radix malorum".   Google Translate's English translation is, "The violence is the root of evil".  This is something that conservative Catholics can rally around!


 Jim P. and others: A quibble, but I think an important one:

It’s probably important, too, that he’s a Jesuit.  The Society of Jesus focuses on the least of our brothers and sisters, those most in need, those who are most at the margins.  This is a good thing, and it’s a good challenge for those of us who are rather comfortably ensconced in the American middle class to try to see things from another point of view.

Focus on the least of the brethren is not a specifically Jesuit charism, and they came to it, in fact, comparatively late. The Franciscans started out that way. But, as the souce of the phase Jim picked --  "the least of our brothers and sisters" -- suggests (Matt 25:40), that focus is demanded of all of the disciples of Jesus. It is, Jesus said, the standard by which one's application for admission to heaven will be judged.

The Jesuits do it better than anyone else,of course, but all of the rest of us are required to do it. It is not just something to think about in our comfortable middle-class existence.

As Micah told us (6:8) we must (no argument) do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The Catholic who think it's enough to fulfill the third requrement by showing up  on Sunday and some other times when he "doesn't have to" and to think Hallmark thoughts misses two-thirds of the obligation. He or she might qualify as a neophyte but not as a Christian.


The Latin is not the original of the Holy Father's tweet. He has a Latinist whose job it is to translate the tweets into Latin. The original is probably the Italian or the Spanish, which is very close to the English.

Jim P, 

First you play down Mammom. Then inequity. I guess next is that a camel can really fit into the eye of the needle. But I am shallow as I forget how grateful we should be to all those millionaires who have their names on all kinds of hospitals and other babels. Suppose you object to the statement of Jesus that "they have had their reward." Of cours not, they deserve the money they made. 

 Let's face it, U.S religous conservatives are "frightened and confused" by any exposure to reality.  They like the handful of favourite scriptural texts that have been fashionable among them lately, and find anything else to be disturbing and disorienting.  They have got used, nevertheless--at least outwardly--to not being contemptuous of Jews and blacks and women, and so are at least capable of putting on a show of understanding equality and fairness.  They will adapt, eventually to equality for homsexuals, especially since some of them will be their own children (who, fortuntely for them and the rest of us, do not listen to them) and may learn that it is unwise to spend their whole lives trying to beggar their neighbour. 


Tom - thanks for that comment re: the Jesuits, Matthew 25 and our Christian responsibilities.

It relates somewhat to Ann's most recent comment, and to the conversation I've been having with Matthew (the editor, not the evangelist, although the editor does a pretty fair job of evangelizing in his most recent comment to me, too).  All of us who participate in a free market are free to be Christians.  Not that the marketplace gives us perfect and complete freedom.  None of us, even owners, are perfectly autonomous masters of our economic life in the marketplace.  Ethical conflicts arise in all our work lives, and there can be personal and professional costs to our Christian choices.   And freedom, in and of itself, does not ensure that we will act as Christians: not everyone in the marketplace is a Christian, not every nominal Christian actually holds to Christian values and ideals, and not every serious Christian tailors his words, actions and choices to Christian ideals in every instance.

Even so: the workplace and the marketplace are where we live our lives and where we are called to realize our fully human potential.  It is even a place, pace Matthew the editor, where the Good News can be given witness.  But all of these require freedom and autonomy.  Not every iteration of capitalism, and not every alternative to capitalism, places a premium on freedom and autonomy.  Coercion can extend far beyond tax rates and anti-pollution regulations.  That's not just a theory; it's history.


Tom Blackburn --

The Jesuits historically have not focused on *all* the least of our brethren -- they have focused on the male half of humanity.  It is only in the last 50 years or so that the Jesuits have allowed women in their colleges, and their high schools are still male-only.

As for the Franciscans, here's a weird bit of history about how money can affect the Church's teachings.

Relatively early in their history some of the Franciscans became very worldly.  In the 14th century some of them we living so high on the hog that William of Ockham,, the philosopher-theologian, blasted the Pope himself for permitting Franciscans to own things,.  He claimed it was against the  spirit of St. Francis, and ultimately he called the Pope himself a heretic because the Pope wouldn't side with him.  Apparently, this really struck a nerve, and the Pope  excommunicated him as a heretic!  Be careful who you call greedy!  

No, Ockham was not excommunicated for his so-called "nominalism", as is often claimed by Catholic theologians, who now typically dismiss his thinking as from the devil himself, and even to this day Ockham's philosophy is the bete noir of Catholic theiologians -- they still contend that Ockham's philosophical positions grounded (gasp!) the Enlightenment with all its terrible ramifications, including the so-called "relativism" that Benedict in particular deplores.  (Not that the theologians actually understand Ockham, mind you.)  Sad, sad, even tragic. 

On the other side, the secular philosophers of science generally had and still have only scorn for the thinking of the theologians.  Tragic really, because Ockham's original complaint had nothing to do with the philosophical underpinnings of science..

Ockham wasn't the only Franciscan who argued the point about poverty.  There was a war within the order about the place of poverty in the order's life.  I wonder whether St. Ignatius founded a new order, one explicitly dedicated to poverty, in order to avoid the inter-necine Franciscan war about Lady Poverty.


It's a tweet for heaven's sake, not an encyclical! He was apparently referring to the Pauline text in which the love of money or greed is described as the root of all evil. Should there be something controversial about that? Even intelligent people are capable of blowing things out or proportion.

JP and others - here is another interesting way of framing this issue:


- from John Carr:  "We've got people who sort of measure the teaching by how it measures up with their own ideological preferences instead of the other way around," he said. "There's a bit of a battle over what the teaching is, who owns it and what it calls for. Some people are turning themselves into pretzels saying, 'I'm fully consonant with Catholic teaching, but unions are outmoded, the living wage is counterproductive and the market is the moral way to go for society.' That's a great way to be a subscriber to Forbes magazine, but it isn't an expression of Catholic faith."  (perfect example of the Acton Institute approach - start with ideology and then try to cram everything into a square hole)

"Currently a full-time, full-year worker making the minimum wage cannot raise one child out of poverty," he said. "So if you're looking at the federal minimum wage through the lens of Catholic social teaching and the imperative to nurture families as the fundamental cell of society, it's not meeting that standard."



Thanks, Bill deHaas for citing John Carr's remarks. What Carr says is hard to deny. How to change these circumstances is no easy matter, but that is no excuse for not both (a) calling the prrevailiing an institutionalized evil of the first water, and (b) exerting what political and economic pressure we can muster to promote the kinds of discussions and experimentations that start from the premise that the prevailing situation is both unnecesary and immoral. Some experiments may well go awry and turn out to produce harms of their own, but not to attempt refprms is a form of intolerable fatalism.

Ann Oliver, Thanks. But haven't more people used Ockham's razor than have used King Gillette's?

Tom B. --

No doubt they have.  So?

Bill de Haas, Bernard and others: do you really think, though, that a living wage as a minimum wage should be legislated/mandated?  (Or perhaps that is not where Carr is going with his remarks?  I took them as being along those lines).  Even the President, who I expect "gets" the notion of a living wage, isn't proposing legislation to mandate it.

On May Day (and St. Joseph the Worker Day, too), maybe we can all express our support for worker solidarity, organization and collective bargaining to bring about better wages and working conditions.



Jim Pauwels,

I support a basic income. The easiest way to eliminate poverty is just to give people enough money to ensure that they are not poor. Each person would receive the same amount of money from the government without any restrictions on its use. I'd pair it with elimination of most other anti-poverty programs, the minimum wage, Social Security, and many educational and artistic stipends because they would be redundant, but I would keep a universal single-payer health insurance system.

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.


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