Bernardo M. Villegas
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Teaching Authority of the Church (Part 2)

             The Pope and the Bishops cannot give moral and spiritual guidance effectively without getting down to brass tacks, which include very concrete descriptions of the evils that beset modern society.  This is very obvious in the manner in which Pope Francis gives us economists moral and spiritual guidance on many issues related to the science of the allocation of scarce resources to address competing ends of society, i.e. economics.  One of the most important problems that we economists have to help society resolve is the optimum blend between market forces and the role of the State in attaining authentic integral human development.  What must be done to enable countries, especially among the so-called emerging markets, to attain sustainable, equitable and inclusive development?  One of the most relevant writings of Pope Francis on this primordial question is found in a book entitled “This Economy Kills,” which contains the answers the Pope gave to questions posed by two Italian journalists, Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi.

 In a review of the book by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of The New Republic, the following summary is given: “This Economy Kills settles an important question in the papacy of Pope Francis:  are his radical economics in keeping with the tradition of the Church?  And if so, why do they seem to cause such upset among American conservatives?  For Tornielli and Galeazzi, veteran Vatican reporters, the answer is clear:  Pope Francis’s theology is absolutely in keeping with predecessors from the Desert Fathers to the most recent popes, and his economics represent the application of timeless theology to our most contemporary problems.  Understanding Pope Francis’s approach to modern economic ills will likely be the key to understanding his papacy—but his contributions to global dialogue on poverty and inequality will be integral to galvanizing people worldwide for change…”  I would compare the critics of the Pastoral Letter of the CBCP entitled “The Truth Will Set Your Free” to the U.S. Catholic conservatives who have no clue about how to weave empirically observable facts concerning the economy with the unchanging theological and philosophical truths about man and society.

The very title of the book should give us an inkling that the Pope will not pull punches when he exposes the evils of neoliberal economics which puts unlimited trust in free market forces along the lines of the teachings of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman who was notorious for saying that the only business of business is to make a profit.  He and his disciples made the very unrealistic assumption that if we have a completely free wheeling economy, the problems of poverty will be automatically solved by what they call the “trickle down effects” of market forces.  Encourage the rich to accumulate a lot of wealth and you will eradicate poverty by means of the so-called multiplier effects of business entrepreneurship through the employment generated and the goods and services produced.

The criticism by Pope Francis of the neoliberal theory of the benefits of free market economics already started when he was the Cardinal Bishop of Buenos Aires.  In his words quoted in the “This Economy Kills”: “Throughout this time, there has been financial terrorism proper.  And it has had its consequences which are not hard to see:  more rich people, more poor people, and a drastically reduced middle class.  There have been other less circumstantial consequences, such as the disaster in the field of education.  At this moment in the city of Buenos Aires and in its residential suburbs, there are two million young people who neither study nor work.  Given the barbarous form assumed by the financial globalization of Argentina, the church in this country has always taken the indications contained in the magisterium as its points of reference.  They are, for example, the criteria outlined in no uncertain terms in John Paul II’s allocution, Ecclesia in America.”  Already the Cardinal then did not hesitate to use damning words like “financial terrorism” and “barbarous form” of free-market economics forced down the throats of developing countries by international financial organizations like the IMF. 

Cardinal Bergoglio could have stayed at motherhood statements embodying the social principles of the Church such as “as much free market as possible and as much State intervention as necessary,” dwelling on the interaction between the principle of subsidiarity and the principle of solidarity.  But no, he could not help describing the state of affairs at the ground level and had to take his stand about the manner in which the Argentinian government was swallowing hook, line, and sinker the free market ideology of the IMF.  This is another example of the Teaching Authority of the Church descending to  empirically obvious examples of erroneous policies in the same way that the Filipino Bishops could not just remind us of the duty of telling the truth but had to give concrete examples of lies and half truths being perpetrated by one presidential candidate or another, such as the false claim that the Martial Law years were the golden age of Philippine economic development.  In fact, the Bishops were being diplomatic when they used such a phrase as “historical revisionism.”  Using the frank language of Pope Francis who does not hesitate to use phrases such as “the economy kills”, “financial terrorism,” and “barbarous globalization,” the Bishops could have been more direct and referred to all these distortions of historical facts as “shameless lies period.”

As the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis in using his teaching authority has been relentless in criticizing neo-liberal economics, not only at the level of spiritual and moral guidance, but using observable data and events taken from the human sciences.  The interaction between theory and practice is very obvious in the following words he addressed to several new nonresident ambassadors to the Holy See on May 16, 2013:  “We have created new idols.  The worship of the golden calf of old…has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.  The worldwide financial and economic crisis (the Great Recession of 2008 to 2012) seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption.  Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away.  We have started a throw-away culture.  This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies: and it is being promoted.”

One of the harshest condemnations by Pope Francis of neo-liberal capitalism is found in his Apostolic Exhortation entitled “The Joy of the Gospel”: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.  Such an economy kills.  How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality.  Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.  As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized:  without work, without possibilities, without means of escape.”  These observations are not mere speculations but are backed up by the hardest data provided by economists all over the world about poverty incidences, hunger, unemployment, underemployment, etc. 

Pope Francis could not care less if politicians, businessmen, and others from the extreme right have been accusing him of being a “communist.”  There are practitioners of my profession who accuse him of interfering in ongoing debates among economists about the pros and cons of a free market economy.  They claim that he is taking sides in favor of those in favor of greater state intervention.  These criticisms do not stop him from speaking the truth and the whole truth, theological, philosophical and empirical.  At this third level, there is nothing he states that cannot be backed up by abundant data and information available from the most prestigious think tanks and research centers from all over the world. 

Likewise, as the Filipino Bishops wrote in their Pastoral Letter of February 25, 2022, “ We did not invent the historic event that happened in EDSA….Many of us were witnesses of the injustice and cruelty of Martial Law  And up until now, the human rights abuses, the victims, the corruption, the grave debt and economic downturn of the country due  to dictatorship are well-documented.  Again, we did not make these up.  These are all written in our history…We are alarmed by the distortion of the truth of historyBenie and false narratives. This is dangerous, for it poisons our collective consciousness and destroys the moral foundations of our institutions.”  It is crystal clear that the Bishops in issuing that Pastoral Letter were continuing more than a century of the traditional teachings of the Church about the economic, political and social structures of society.  They would have been remiss in their duty to give us Catholic faithful moral and spiritual guidance if they did not write that Letter.  For comments, my email address is