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.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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