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Beware the hobbyhorse. Evangelii Gaudium is not about economics.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 27, 2013

If you read Evangelii Gaudium as primarily an indictment of free-market economics, you read it all wrong. The Pope did have a good deal to say about economic matters (more on that later), but this is not an apostolic exhortation about economics.

If you thought the big news was that the Pope reaffirmed that women cannot be ordained, or that he strongly condemned abortion, that’s wrong, too.

Evangelii Gaudium is about the urgent need to tell the world the good news of God’s love, the joy of salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s flat-out impossible for any reasonably objective person to read the document and come away with any other idea about its central theme.

In the course of this long document—too long, really—the Pope touches on a number of different topics. Yes, he writes about economic affairs, challenging us to recognize that the pursuit of wealth is not the purpose of life. Some of his arguments are troublesome to Catholics like myself, who believe that entrepreneurs are more likely than government officials to lift people out of poverty. Writing for National Review, Samuel Gregg offers a useful critique of the Pope’s dim view of the free market.

However, Gregg’s critique is useful precisely because he recognizes that Pope Francis has not set himself up as an economic authority. It is possible for a discerning reader to question the Pope’s grasp of economic analysis, and still recognize the force of the moral challenges he has issued. “I myself take no offense from Evangelii Gaudium’s observations about poverty and the economy,” Gregg remarks.

Nor does Gregg slip into the error of thinking that this is a document about economic affairs. That has, unfortunately, been a very common mistake among those reacting to the apostolic exhortation. It’s like suggesting that Huckleberry Finn is mainly a book about river navigation.

Since the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been pounding home the message that teaching the Catholic faith does not mean taking stands on public issues or promoting social programs. The essence of Church teaching is to convey the joyful news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Everything else is secondary.

So what happens when the Pope releases his first apostolic exhortation? Hundreds of analysts rush to report on what the stands he has taken on public issues, the social programs he has promoted. It will take a while, apparently, for his message to sink in.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: djpeterson - Nov. 30, 2013 11:25 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately, a group of Catholic writers and institutes have devoted huge resources to promoting the U.S. ideology of free markets and globalization; an effort which is falling apart. It seems it would be more profitable to make a serious effort to learn from this and several other excellent Vatican statements. The current system does have merits. However, there is a crying need for prudent economic reforms to help millions who are marginalized by the decadent world financial elites.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 29, 2013 11:38 AM ET USA

    “Evangelii Gaudium....” On further meditation, the fact that the Holy Father seems to disapprove of the “free market” system which is conspicuously apparent in the American way of doing things is far more weighty than might ordinarily be considered. Particularly on Thanksgiving, it must be acknowledged than the original intent of this Nation’s settlement was the free practice of Christianity & the spread of the Gospel. Would the Pope suggest that our livelihood and evangelism are incompatible?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 28, 2013 8:58 AM ET USA

    Francis expresses a not so subtle desire for a “centralized” system that would provide for everyone & sees wealth & independent economic initiative as a potential & existing evil. But he also wants to empower individual spiritually to do good. However even Popes must choose between Church & world. Laity are called to “avoid greed in all its forms” so too…,…” bishops” “in the world” are called not to interfere with the “world system” but to focus on governing the Church & saving souls.

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