The last time I wrote about the Catholic Church, the church had selected its new pope.

And, as anticipated, the first pope from Latin America is shaking things up at the Vatican and around the world.

However, I was a bit surprised that Pope Francis would so soon be engaged in an economics debate with Rush Limbaugh, triggered by the recently released 84-page “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that “attacked unfettered capitalism as a new tyranny” and seems to be a laundry-list of progressive dream programs. Gateway Pundit has a clip of Limbaugh’s original comments and the papal response.

Today Pope Francis responded saying, “The Marxist ideology is wrong.” But, then he went on to attack free-market “trickle-down” economics. (Via Vatican Insider)

Some of the passages in the “Evangelii Gaudium” attracted the criticism of ultraconservatives in the USA. As a Pope, what does it feel like to be called a “Marxist”?

“The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

Here’s the point I want to make:

Like most Catholics, I don’t go to church to get my politics or economics. I became Catholic in 2010, in response to my involvement with the Tea Party movement (needing both strength and humility to maintain a proper perspective). In fact, my sponsor is an old-fashioned, FDR-embracing, ex-Berkeley professor progressive who has been trying to exorcise my capitalistic tendencies for years…to no avail.  So, while interesting, the Pope’s remarks aren’t going to transform me, either.

But, while I was pretty certain Pope Francis was probably going to be a social justice crusader, I was very curious to get a comprehensive analysis of his “apostolic exhortation,” Evangelii Gaudium. Surely, he couldn’t have gone “complete communist”!

Happily, Samuel Gregg, director at the free-market oriented Acton Institute and author of Tea Party Catholic has written an excellent review.  As I suspected, a careful read shows there is a lot less there than meets the progressive eye.

Personally speaking, I don’t find discussions of wealth distribution to be bothersome at all. Catholics, other Christians, and other people of good will should, in my view, enter enthusiastically into such debates. Because it is precisely through these conversations that it can be pointed out that — as Evangelii Gaudium seems, alas, unaware — many poverty-alleviation methods that involve redistribution (such as foreign aid) are increasingly discredited.

As the economist and historian of the Federal Reserve Allan Meltzer put it, one of the 20th century’s economic lessons is that “transfers, grants and redistribution did little to raise living standards in Asia, Latin America and Africa.” In other words, the standard wealth-redistribution policies that are often regarded as indispensable to poverty alleviation have failed to achieve their goals. Hence it behooves all Catholics to ask ourselves why such approaches have failed if we’re going to have a serious conversation about wealth and poverty in the modern world.

My critique is by no means intended to imply that all of Pope Francis’s observations about economic life are naïve or simply mistaken. As it happens, he says several things that will resonate with those who favor free enterprise and markets. The pope states, for instance, that welfare projects should be seen as “temporary responses” (202) and warns against the “welfare mentality” (204). Evangelii Gaudium extols “free” and “creative” work (192). Francis also affirms that business “is a noble vocation” that serves “the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all” (203).

…And yet for all these and other observations, it is difficult not to come away from reading Evangelii Gaudium thinking that there are just too many unexamined assumptions about the economy that have made their way into this document.

Gregg makes a good point: Pope Francis is in the market for souls. Subsequently, this could be a wonderful learning opportunity for him, as well as other clergy (like my priest who occasionally regales us with quotes from Maya Angelou). In fact, New York Times editorialist Ross Douthat has three points that should be stressed when discussing the subject with fellow Catholics:

First, that when it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty, global capitalism, faults and all, has a better track record by far than any other system or approach.

Second, that Catholic social teaching, properly understood, emphasizes both solidarity and subsidiarity — that is, a small-c conservative preference for local efforts over national ones, voluntarism over bureaucracy.

Third, that on recent evidence, the most expansive welfare states can crowd out what Christianity considers the most basic human goods — by lowering birthrates, discouraging private charity and restricting the church’s freedom to minister in subtle but increasingly consequential ways.

If you are like me, a Catholic who embraces capitalism and charity, this is the perfect time of year to spread the “good word” and help Legal Insurrection: Order “Tea Party Catholic” and “The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy” from this site, and give them to your favorite priest or fellow Catholic for Christmas.

If you are feeling “extra giving,” donate to the Acton Institute in their names as well!

God bless us, everyone!

(PS. The editors of Time Magazine, who selected the pope as “Man of the Year”, are going to be in for a surprise when, despite progressive dreams, traditional stances on many social policies will be maintained. And, my sponsor will still be complaining about the lack of women in the priesthood…a dogma that I am far more sanguine about than she).

(Featured image credits: Vatican YouTube video / Rush Limbaugh YouTube video via CowgerNation)