He calls for the rich to help the poor but more than just calling for generosity he insists that governments must be involved in this. For myself, I found this rather at odds with his views on the Catholic Church itself. He seemed to be calling for a decentralization of the church but for greater centralization in government. In general, decentralization came about in governments because of a distrust of politicians whereas, in the Catholic Church, greater centralization was deemed only natural since the Pope was the Successor of St Peter and the one granted the gift of infallibility. This has been a bit difficult for your humble correspondent to wrap his damaged mind around. For example, in the United States, certainly since the Johnson administration, the government has taxed the rich and “given to the poor” in social programs more than ever before and yet poverty levels have only gone up. The Pope also calls on governments to provide all people with education and healthcare. Well, the U.S. is working on the healthcare bit right now (and being sued by the Catholic bishops over it) and as for education, again, the U.S. is spending more on education than ever before but with no improvement.
Historically, the Catholic Church has been a bit more specific as to the ideal “socioeconomic” system (if I can use that word even though I’m not sure what it means exactly and am unsure anyone else does either) but there is no consensus as to what exactly that was or if it was ever even really put into effect anywhere to be tried. Most agree that it involved some sort of revival of something like the guild system of the Middle Ages but, call it what you will, it became rather unpopular in the second half of the last century because so many who adopted it (or claimed to because, again, there is no consensus) were what most people today would label as “fascists” (Dollfuss, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar etc). Right or wrong that is the perception and so, especially since perception is reality more and more these days, it is mostly not talked about. You can put out statistics about what actually happened in those countries (unemployment levels dropping and trains running on time) but it won’t do much good because once the “f-word” is mentioned, all rational discussion grinds to an immediate halt. It seems quite a dilemma. If a pope is going to roll up his sleeves and get involved in critiquing economic policies, surely he should have a clearly defined alternative to offer or at least more specifics as to what exactly is good and what exactly is bad so that people are not just left arguing over what he “really” meant? After all, it would not be the first time that a papal foray into politics ended up not turning out so well. For example, when Pope Leo XIII called on French Catholics to embrace the republic, he did so while claiming to be a monarchist and insisting that French royalists could restore the monarchy democratically by playing ball with the republic. In hindsight, however, most took it as a papal blessing on republicanism and the effective end of the royalists as a political force in France.
I also could not help but noticing, in my perusal of the internet and what people were saying about this in the major publications and news sources in preparation for this was that everyone on the political left seemed overjoyed by it with just a few negative types mentioning that the Pope should practice what he preaches and have the Church start paying taxes and selling off the contents of the Vatican Museum (which I rather hate to mention for fear that he just might do it) while those on the political right were either opposed to what the Pope said, confused by it or were trying to defend it by basically saying he didn’t mean what everything thinks he meant. As I have said before, that alone should cause reasonable people to think a little harder. I have never known any religious leader who has had to have so many people rush out to interpret for everyone else what he “really” meant every time a statement or quote comes out. It is, however, quite difficult these days, especially when dealing with modern Christianity, to determine what is a “moral issue” and what is not, because, so many on both sides claim that every issue is related to every other issue and, in the end, it is all about morality any way you look at it. Border enforcement is a moral issue, healthcare is a moral issue, the debt is a moral issue, national security is a moral issue, foreign aid is a moral issue and so on. I will not try to categorize what the Pope said (I’ve made enough enemies already) but I will point out just a few statistics. In this papal mission statement the word “inequality” is mentioned ten times. The word “Heaven” is also mentioned ten times though eight of those were in quoting someone else. The Pope used the word “economy” twelve times and the word “economic” nineteen times. He used the word consumer or consumerism a total of eleven times while mentioning “marriage” three times and “abortion” only once.
True, he mentioned a “more efficient way of interacting” for the countries of the world, but gave no clue as to what this way was or what vehicle could bring it about. Is it the United Nations? Is it some new international organization or global forum? We are not told. If I am seen as dwelling too excessively on this point it is only because of what I have witnessed firsthand. In the United States of America, for example, it is the Democrats, currently President Obama, who speak the most about inequality and social injustice and the need for the rich to “pay their fair share” and for the need for government to provide healthcare to all people. It is the Republicans who would say that less government regulation is the answer to these problems, that social welfare is being taken advantage of by fraudsters and that over taxing and regulating businesses (and the rich) only create more unemployment and thus more poor people for the Pope to embrace. In the last election, President Obama campaigned on providing “universal healthcare” and the U.S. Catholic bishops came out also in favor of “universal healthcare”. If you were to read the fine print you would see that the bishops did not officially endorse the plan of the President but they did call for universal healthcare and he was the only candidate promising to deliver it. Related or not, most American Catholics voted for Obama and the healthcare plan that was then passed directly attacked the religious beliefs of the Catholic Church such as in funding for abortion-inducing drugs and artificial birth control. So, vague calls for nice sounding things can have disastrous consequences when one ignores the details.
Given all of that, I am not the least bit surprised by the reaction this document has produced. It is critical of a great deal, inside the Catholic Church and outside of it yet rather vague when it comes to details, solutions or specific changes and that, it seems to me, is a sound recipe for controversy and confusion. This is something to be taken seriously because, for anyone who is a Catholic certainly, obedience to the Pope is not supposed to be an optional extra (assuming that is not included in the aspects of the papacy that need “conversion”). Traditionally, the teaching of the Catholic Church has been that obedience to the Pope is a necessary requirement for salvation and whether what he says falls under the (again, at this point rather vague) guidelines of what constitutes an infallible statement or not, what he says is supposed to carry immense weight and be taken very seriously. Given that, and given that what constitutes a “moral issue” is expanding into areas such as international relations and income inequality, the Church needs to take care to be just as specific about its pronouncements on those issues as it is on things like the sacraments, sin and salvation. Critics should calm down and read the document and ponder it before leaping to conclusions (the Pope also criticizes debt and dependency -which is usually left out) and at the same time, supporters of the Pope should not immediately jump on those who disagree with or question it. The Pope said he wanted a church that was “bruised, hurting and dirty”. Don’t be afraid of the “dirt” that comes from a little bit of debate.