Ok, so I’ve been playing a little bit the role of Pope Francis’ Busiris* and, I think, appropriately so, but I’ve always left the door open to criticism, and here I am going to do that.
No, Pope Francis is not a Marxist. He is not a free marketer either. But what he gives us in his latest interview is an example of why these categories are not necessarily the most useful in looking at Petrine Chair’s economic magisterium.
Here’s what Pope Francis said about world hunger:
With all the food that is left over and thrown away we could feed so many. If we were able to stop wasting and start recycling food, world hunger would diminish greatly. […] If we work with humanitarian organisations and are able to agree all together not to waste food, sending it instead to those who need it, we could do so much to help solve the problem of hunger in the world.
(Pope Francis is so easy to love because this stuff is interspersed with such a lovely story of encouraging a mother to breastfeed.)
Here’s the thing: the reason why so many go hungry is not that people in the West throw away food. That’s just not the reason. The reason is not free market capitalism. The reason isn’t even socialism (or only marginally, these days). The main reason—and I’m pretty sure this is something all serious observers of this question would agree with—is quite simply corruption. Everyday corruption of functionaries. Corruption in the broader sense of war. Corruption.
This fact, if it is a fact, makes Francis’ words disheartening, and this for many reasons.
First, its pollyannaish quality. No, it’s simply not true that if we in the West stopped wasting food kids in Africa would have it. It wasn’t true when my parents told me so** to make me clean my plate, and it’s still not true. And pretending it is is, well, infantile. And not in a Matthew 18 way. And we can “rescue” this Francis comment by elevating it to the theological level, by saying that by wasting food we are, in a powerful sense, being ungrateful towards God’s good creation and being selfish. And that perhaps if we rid ourselves of this ungratefulness we will be made holier by grace and better able to follow Jesus’ command to feed the hungry. And I believe this is true! But that’s not what Francis is saying or, at the very least, it’s not only what he’s saying.
Second, it shows that so much can be accomplished at the level of social doctrine without getting into econo-philosophical debates about “free markets” and “trickle-down economics.” You don’t need to reform or reinterpret or innovate Catholic social doctrine to say that corruption of government officials is scandalous.
Third, because if there is any institution in the world that should put this issue front and center, it’s the Catholic Church. First because, as I’ve said, it’s already well within the bounds of Tradition and flows naturally from the Gospel. Second, because it has a unique legitimacy and presence in doing so. Who else has both the moral language and the on-the-ground presence in so many of these countries to be able to denounce corruption forcefully and effectively? The World Bank? The UN? How much great would be done if, every day, every bishop in sub-Saharan Africa and India and other places saw his number one pastoral priority as denouncing and combatting corruption by government officials, instead of (I’m sorry) bloviating platitudes about wasting food? Isn’t this something the Vicar of Christ should exhort the other bishops to do?
How much good this would do not only to the world, but to the Church! Bishops becoming signs of contradiction against corruption in the developing world would be a great evangelical sign. (And yes, I am sure that many today already do this.) And, of course, it would raise up the Church to a higher standard since a Church that crusades against corruption must therefore be all the more exemplary with regard to its own corruption. And to do so, it must be holy, because you can be sure that if bishops start all of a sudden denouncing corruption day and night, some will be shot and earn the crown of martyrdom.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
★ In Jean Giraudoux’s comedy The Trojan War Will Not Take Place Busiris is a lawyer who gives an airtight, brilliant legal argument that the Greeks are justified in going to war against Troy. Hector then threatens Busiris’ life, and Busiris then immediately gives an equally airtight and brilliant legal argument that the Greeks are unjustified in going to war against Troy.
★★ They didn’t tell me so.