Pope Francis takes on ‘trickle-down’ economics

Pope Francis meets with Paraguay's President Horacio Cartes at the Vatican.
(Vincenzo Pinto / AFP / Getty Images)

Pope Francis has released an “apostolic exhortation” that revisits some by now familiar themes of his pontificate. One is the need for a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets.” Another is that Christians should condemn the “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

In a passage that may cause Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul D. Ryan some distress, Francis writes: “In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

The pope’ words also are likely to discomfit conservatives, Catholics and otherwise, who see personal responsibility, not economic equality, as the antidote to crime. Francis writes: “Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.”

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This is just a longer version of the bumper sticker that drives conservatives crazy: “If you want peace, work for justice.”

It’s tempting to see likely conservative distress at Francis’ social and economic views as something new. In fact, popes have been irritating Catholic conservatives and free-market enthusiasts since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical “Rerum Novarum” in which he praised “workingmen’s unions.” As a childhood political junkie (and a Catholic), I was aware that some of Pope John XXIII’s economic and political pronouncements sat poorly with conservative Catholics such as William F. Buckley Jr.

In 1961, John, to whom Francis is often compared, issued an encyclical titled “Mater et Magistra” (“Mother and Teacher”) that paid homage to Leo’s earlier work and sounded similar themes. (“It can never be right for the state to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman.”) Buckley’s magazine, National Review, reacted by reporting: “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles: ‘Mater si, Magistra no.’ ” Apparently it was the journalist Garry Wills, then a conservative, who actually came up with that line, a play on the communist Cuban slogan “Cuba Si, Yanqui No.”

Now that Francis is in full throat, conservative Catholics may be polishing off the phrase.