Pope Francis and the Caring Society

edited by Robert Whaples, Independent Institute, 256pp, £18

Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, concludes with a prayer containing these lines: “O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.” How can we best conduct this rescue mission? Which method of managing the world’s resources offers the best chance of success?

Pope Francis and the Caring Society is a conscious response to the Holy Father’s appeal for dialogue on this subject. Entering into this dialogue are several contributors who are sceptical about the ideas underpinning the Pope’s hostility towards capitalism. They lean towards the apparently paradoxical conclusion that the cause of rescuing the poorest is served by mobilising the forces of self-interest, and not by squeezing the rich. As Jacob Rees-Mogg, recently quoted in these pages, might have it, “it is the capitalists who love the poor, not the socialists, who condemn them to poverty”.

Rest assured, however: Pope Francis and the Caring Society is not simply one side in a fruitless stand-off between opposing viewpoints. The commitment to dialogue is real. The editor, Professor Robert Whaples, is a Lay Dominican, as is his wife. Their daughter is Sister Mary Josefa at the Monastery of our Lady of the Rosary. This is hardly the profile of a capitalist attack dog. In his introduction, Whaples even-handedly sets out the arguments typically advanced both for and against free markets, while allowing the Pope’s stirring, stinging critiques to ring out in all of their power and salience and moral appeal. Robert Murphy provides a similarly nuanced conclusion, rich in economic insights. (Look out for the rhino horn example.)

The Francis-sceptics are respectful in pressing their case and willing to acknowledge those occasions when he hits the nail on the head. Instead, they take issue with an over-reliance on hyperbole as a means of making his point (Francis has lambasted “unbridled capitalism” without ever troubling to say where he thinks this operates). More significant, however, are the serious omissions from Francis’s thinking. The most glaring, pointed out in more than one essay here, concerns an evidentially verifiable fact: the huge reductions in extreme poverty seen across the globe in the wake of the spread of free markets. Indeed, Pope Francis seems to suggest that trends are heading in the opposite direction.

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