Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Papal Shot at Unbridled Capitalism Stirs Debate

Pope Francis’ critique of unbridled capitalism and trickle-down economics as a “new tyranny” rattled some Republicans across the country. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called the Pope’s comments “pure Marxism.”  But in the conservative and heavily Catholic region of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, both Republicans and Democrats didn’t think the Pope was referring to them when he criticized capitalism. They didn’t see the Pope’s economic views as a direct attack on the American economy – or their politics. Local leaders said they look to the Pope for spiritual, not economic, guidance.
“I don’t dwell on what the Pope has to say about economics,” said Kentucky State Sen. John Schickel, a Catholic and a Republican from Union. “I’m more mindful of what the Pope has to say about faith and morals.” About 10 paragraphs in Francis’ 50,000-word apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) released in December focused on Francis’ economic views and have spurred the debate among politicians. Francis’ economic views don’t stray from the teachings of earlier Popes, including John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, said Fr. James Bretzke, a Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology at Boston College, a private Jesuit college.
It’s the way he’s said it that makes it different, Bretzke said. “I think what the major difference with Pope Francis is, he’s much more popular than his two immediate predecessors and speaks in a way that’s less academic and not as convoluted,” Bretzke said. “This is what makes it difficult for the Republicans to dismiss his remarks.” The Pope’s popularity far outshines Congress and President Barack Obama, with 88 percent of Americans approving how Francis has led the church, according to a CNN/ORC International poll.
In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Francis took aim at those who have defended trickle down economics. He wrote that the idea that free market capitalism leading to growth helps the poor “has never been confirmed by facts” and “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” “Today, everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” Francis wrote. “As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”


Many don't think the Pope means the United States

Local politicians on both sides of the river downplayed Francis’ remarks on capitalism. “The media has trumped up his statements to sound like an indictment against capitalism,” said Ohio State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township. “Part of the role of a spiritual adviser is to condemn excess when and where he sees them,” Seitz said. “Unbridled capitalism does not look to the common good. I don’t find a terrible objection in that, particularly given the context of where the Pope came from in Argentina and Chile.” Chile and Argentina have a higher income disparity than the United States, with Chile ranked with the 15th highest income disparity in the world, according to the CIA World Fact Book. Argentina ranks 36th and the U.S. 41st.
Many Republicans and tea party activists thought the Pope’s beef with capitalism didn’t involve the United States. “If he was attacking the quote unquote unbridled capitalism that we have today, we don’t have that today,” said Dan Ford, a tea party activist from Erlanger. “It is very much bridled.” Though Ford and others in the tea party movement want less regulation, they do see a need for controls to prevent monopolies and other abuses.
“If he was attacking the capitalism that said ‘Oh, complete greed is fine,’ and is saying that doesn’t work, well it doesn’t work,” Ford said. “I think we need some level of regulation, but not such that we have today. Like I said, it is very unclear what he was attacking.” Some see the Pope’s target as the super rich, not the middle class. Fourth District GOP Chairman Troy Sheldon said he thinks the Pope’s criticism refers to people like Democratic donor and philanthropist George Soros, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett.
“When he looks at them and the amount of wealth they’ve accumulated individually, what they have given back to society?” said Sheldon, a former Catholic who converted to the Baptist faith. “I think that, in his mind, is unbridled capitalism. Now someone like us who are working day-to-day and have an income and donate so much to charity, I think he’d be a very big proponent of that.”
Both Democrats and Republicans in the region didn’t feel the Pope’s message changed the political landscape. What the Pope said in Evangelii Gaudium is nothing new, said attorney Mark Guilfoyle, a Catholic and Northern Kentucky attorney involved in many Democratic causes. Pope Leo XIII said pretty much the same thing in his 1891 encyclical Rarum Novarum, he said. Guilfoyle, a Democrat, doesn’t see the Pope’s message as changing church teaching or having a big impact on the Catholic vote. “I would think any right-thinking Democrat or Republican would agree that unbridled greed is a sin and something that ought to be avoided,” Guilfoyle said. “That’s all he’s saying.”
The Pope’s comments will likely have some political impact for the GOP, Bretzke said. Based on the Pope’s guidance, conservative bishops will have a harder time urging Catholics to vote for a candidate solely because the candidate is against abortion or gay marriage, he said. Instead, Francis called on Catholics to take a more nuanced approach that includes economic policy when deciding who to vote for, he said.
“I think it’s going to be difficult for the Catholic congressman in my home state of Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, to claim that his (proposed) budget is in tune with Catholic social teaching,” Bretzke said. If the Pope’s teachings are followed, capitalism wouldn’t go away; it just means it would provide a just wage for workers, decent health insurance and access to good education, said Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College. “It is not that he opposes capitalism,” Groome said. “He wants a moral capitalism.” Schickel said he likes the new Pope and thinks he’s encouraging good debate. “It opens up a discussion, which I think is good,” Schickel said. “There are evils to materialism.”

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