The Wall Street Journal on the politics of Pope Francis, Sept. 21
Pope Francis arrives Tuesday on his first visit to the United States, and the welcome event illustrates his unique and paradoxical appeal. The Argentine pope is being celebrated more for his embrace of progressive economics than for the Catholic Church’s moral teachings.
Millions of American Catholics will of course welcome the pope as a spiritual messenger and the head of a religion of some 1.2 billion world-wide. As a pastoral shepherd he has set a Christian example that Americans of all faiths might emulate with his modest life-style and manifest concern for the poor and least powerful. His public American itinerary — to a Harlem school, a Philadelphia prison — Congress, and this is where his tour takes on an extra-religious resonance. Pope Francis has overtly embraced the contemporary progressive political agenda of income redistribution and government economic control to reduce climate change.
President Obama, who shares both ambitions, is therefore giving the pope the kind of hearty embrace we can’t imagine him giving to his predecessor Pope Benedict. Secular progressives who disdain the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage and divorce are ignoring all of that catechistic unpleasantness and claiming the pope as an evangelist for their agenda. You might call them cafeteria progressives, after the old line about Catholics who are selective in which church teachings they follow.
There is some risk for the pope and his church in this progressive bear hug. One is that the pope will come to be seen as a seeker of political popularity more than a speaker of hard and eternal truths. Another is that politicians may use the pope to serve their own political and cultural needs, as with the official White House guest list to meet the pope.
The Journal reported last week that the Vatican was upset that the presence of prominent dissenters from Catholic teaching will make it appear that the pope endorses their views. We doubt the White House intended any offense, but the oversight reveals how little secular liberal elites understand about traditional religious mores. You can bet the protocol office would not make such a mistake with a Muslim cleric of similar importance.
Our own hope for the papal visit is that he has a chance to better understand America and the capitalist roots of its prosperity. Like many Argentines of the left, Pope Francis seems given to suspicion about American wealth. But liberty and not coercion is the source of our strength and of the wealth that has lifted millions out of poverty.
Cuba, where Francis arrived this weekend, has denied its people economic freedom — and religious freedom — for the six decades of its revolution and remains poor and unable to develop the “new technologies” that Pope Francis has said should be available for all.
The U.S. has prospered by respecting property rights and relying on the voluntary decisions of individuals. The rule of law here means that unlike in countries such as Argentina, an American can build a large, successful business even if no one in the government likes him. And unlike in Argentina, capitalist success creates millions of jobs that allow men and women without political connections to support their families and live in dignity.
In Washington, D.C., the pope will visit a homeless program run by Catholic Charities. But he should know that Catholic Charities can do its good work because of the contributions from lay Catholics who succeed in a capitalist economy. The pope may also be surprised to learn that individual Americans voluntarily do far more than any government to assist the world’s poor.
A 2013 report from the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity found that nearly $31 billion of annual U.S. government aid to developing countries was eclipsed by $39 billion of private charity, plus another $108 billion of private capital flows. Americans also sent more than $100 billion of remittances to the developing world, often from immigrants working in the U.S. Nobody goes to Cuba to earn money to support relatives in America.
As for the environment and climate change, Pope Francis is sometimes given to an almost Malthusian, anti-modern pessimism. In his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si,” Francis wrote that “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
Well, he should have seen East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the air in Beijing today. Coercive governments are the worst befoulers of the environment. Democratic capitalism has created the wealth and electoral consent to clean the air and water, and only continued economic growth will create the resources to deal with climate change if it does become a serious threat to the Earth.
Catholics understand that while the pope speaks for God on matters of faith and morals, his infallibility does not extend to his economics or environmentalism. We hope he enjoys his visit to the land of the free, and that the education goes both ways.