Pope Francis versus Paul Ryan?

Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is among America’s most high-profile Catholics, and the media is apt to seize with glee upon any dissonance (real or invented) between his politics and his faith. We therefore turn our attention to Phillip Bump’s article Who is more Fallible on Economics, Paul Ryan or Pope Francis? 1

Bump’s article is prompted by an interview in which Ryan, having been “asked about Pope Francis’ recent sharp critique of capitalism” in Evangelii gaudium, “stood up for the free enterprise system as a way of alleviating poverty as well as being consistent with Catholic teaching.” 2 Ryan noted that Francis “is from Argentina, [where] they haven’t had real capitalism,” which is correct; he is not reported to have said, or suggested, as Bump would make him say, that “one certainly can’t critique another country’s economic system without having lived there for an extended period of time” or that “Argentina’s lame,” which is Bump’s  haracterization of the remarks.

The gravamen of Ryan’s criticism, it seems to me, is that Francis’ views on economics are mistaken and parochial, and that his worldview is limited by his experience. Both points seem correct.

The difficulties with Francis’ economic understanding have been explored in several recent articles, including two that will serve to illustrate the themes, Marian Tupy’s Is the Pope right about the world, and Phillip Booth’s Papal Pessimist. 3

Tupy lays waste to the factual foundation of Francis’ views:

The dystopian world that [he] describes, without citing a single statistic, is at odds with reality. In appealing to our fears and pessimism, the pope fails to acknowledge the scope and rapidity of human accomplishment—whether measured through declining global inequality and violence, or growing prosperity and life expectancy.

“The thesis of Evangelii gaudium is simple,” she says: “‘unbridled’ capitalism has enriched a few, but failed the poor.'” But even in America, “perceived as the paragon of free-market capitalism,” the economy is tightly-regulated.

Maybe the marketplace should be regulated less, and maybe it should be regulated more. But unbridled it is not. Moreover, the government redistributes some 40 percent of all wealth produced in America…. Much of that wealth comes from the rich and pays for everything from defense and roads to healthcare and education, which are enjoyed by Americans from all income groups. … Maybe the rich should contribute more, and maybe they should contribute less. But contribute they do—well in excess of the biblical tithe.

She goes on to eviscerate Francis’ mistakes on so-called “trickle-down” theories. (We should note that Francis has recently advanced what amounts to a defense on the question of lacking factual support: “I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view,” he told Andrea Tornielli, as though expertise was merely decorative. 4)

Booth notes the problem of Francis’ limited and parochial experience (his conflation of markets with “the exploitation of the poor, corruption and cronyism” is explained by the idiosyncrasies and failures of South American experience with quasi-capitalist experiments), to which we will return momentarily, before writing:

Taking one or two specific issues the Pope raises, it can be seen how he hits the wrong note. Finance and banking are criticised as part of a general attack on the supposed autonomy of markets free from the constraints of government. However, the banking system is wrapped up with government regulation and state guarantees that underwrite reckless risk-taking and unethical behaviour. The Pope is desperately concerned about youth unemployment, but this is a phenomenon that rears its head most notably in countries where the market is not allowed to operate properly, such as Italy and Argentina….

Nobody idolizes the market, as Francis suggests—but

many people do sincerely believe that a free economy best serves the poor and is most compatible with our created human nature. A free economy under the rule of law with economic action cloaked in virtue is needed in Argentina, in Italy, in the countries that experienced the aborted Arab Spring. Socialist systems and corporatist systems serve rich and powerful interests at the expense of the poor. It is they that should be the target of the Pope’s proclamations.

These criticisms from Tupy and Booth, and many more like them, are trenchant—and there is no doubt that Ryan meant to associate himself with them. Father Longenecker’s response to Tupy’s article bears quotation:

What is eye opening is that [she] shows that many of our assumptions about the world are not completely true. The more I read about the facts the more it seems to me that Pope Francis, when he talks about economics and social issues, is repeating rather tired old ideological formulas that don’t always bear up to closer examination.  … To point out the continued poverty of so many, and to call for us to do even more is the pope’s job. There is no room for complacency, and we need to do everything we can for the poor, but we must also make room at the table for professional economists and theorists who can help us understand the complexities of modern economic systems and show us how to be good stewards of our blessings for the good of all, for human flourishing and a just society. 5

As I have said before, “[w]en the bishops intervene in public policy questions, they do well to tread lightly … [and], recognizing that the path from sound doctrine to sound policy is not always straight, short, and well-lit, they should do so in a manner consonant with the limits of their ex officio competence.” 6

A word must be said on Francis’ parochialism, on which both Ryan and Booth alighted. It’s a theme that I have noticed for some time: Many of Francis’ otherwise-bewildering statements snap into sharp focus if one assumes the context of a South American bishop writing to a South American flock. For example, his insistence that baptism not be denied to the children of unwed mothers make sense if he believes that that uncontroversial proposition is controversial (as it is in Argentina, we are told). 7 The irony is that you may remember that before the conclave, the knock on Timothy Cardinal Dolan wasn’t that he was an American but that his experience was too parochial—he just hadn’t spent enough time outside of the United States, and his worldview was thus too limited, too dominated by the assumptions of a man who had spent his entire life in one country. Thus,the better-travelled Sean Card. O’Malley was considered a more plausible American papabile. It was surprising, then, that mouths that had been articulating this concern were immediately cheering Jorge Card. Bergoglio, who made Dolan look cosmopolitan. Against this backdrop, Ryan’s suggestion that Pope Francis’ knowledge of economics comes from and is limited by the experience of Card. Bergoglio is not only plausible but likely.

Bump tries to rescue his narrative by insinuating artificial breadth into the papal charism: Francis is, he says, “the conduit of an omniscient God” and how silly, therefore, to suggest that he “simply doesn’t know what real capitalism looks like” or that he could be “fallible on economics.” The first part is basically correct, but the second isn’t. To be sure, the pope is the vicar of Christ, not only pastor agnus but pastor pastorum, commissioned to teach, govern, and sanctify the Church. But the scope of the magisterium is faith and morals, 8, and a pope has no ex officio expertise in economics. 9 Francis may certainly teach—at very least as an incident to the magisterium—that the purpose of the economy must be to benefit the poor, but he does not and cannot teach with authority (although he may express his own opinion) on whether this economic theory or that economic theory is most likely to accomplish that purpose. (Nor will it do to claim that economics is so inextricably and intimately-related to faith and morals that the magisterium may exercise a kind of supplemental jurisdiction over it. 10) Consider an analogy to the physical sciences. The pope can teach that “the end of science is to know the face of God,” and the pope can teach that embryonic stem cell research is not a morally-permissible methodology by which to pursue any goal, scientific or otherwise. But a pope with no scientific training who opined on the probative value of a specific scientific theory would not merely be ignored, he would be ridiculed, and justifiably-so. If Francis said “the end of science is to know the face of God, and since general relativity has no capacity to do that, it’s not a valid scientific theory,” he would be greeted with hoots of derision. So Francis is certainly fallible on economics; so is Ryan, because all humans are fallible, a principle abridged only in a narrow and defined capacity by the magisterial charisms.

One more analogy. Federal appellate judges “teach” with a sort of “authority” within their jurisdiction—subject to later correction by the Supreme Court, and with a host of other caveats, yes, but the analogy will be serviceable. Sometimes judges write books and law review articles, in which they may bring expertise with them, but in which they bring none of the authority they enjoy when “teaching ex scamno,” so to speak. But sometimes their reach exceeds their grasp. Last year, Judge Richard Posner, who is arguably one of the most influential and respected living judges in America, and inarguably the most cited one, 11 a towering figure in law (like Holmes, for both better or worse), was writing a book review for the New Republic magazine, and he felt that an analogy to the Catholic Church might help make his point. 12 Unfortunately, Judge Posner knows very little about the Catholic Church, and it showed. Illustrating the proposition that the Constitution is “dated and must therefore be updated (without altering the text) so as to preserve its authority,” Posner suggested, with his usual glib self-assurance, that Amar’s proposal

is also the one the Catholic Church applies to the Bible, [to wit] supplementation from equally authoritative sources. The Church believes that a Pope receives divine inspirations that enable him to proclaim dogmas that are infallible and thus have equal authority with the Bible. Jesus Christ’s mother does not play a prominent role in the New Testament, but she became a focus of Catholic veneration, and in 1854 the Pope proclaimed the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (that is, that she had been born without original sin). This and other extra-Biblical Catholic dogmas, such as the Nicene Creed, which proclaimed the consubstantiality of the Son and the Father, form a kind of parallel Bible, equal in authority to the written one, which reached its modern form in the third century C.E.

This stunning claim, which completely misconceives the magisterium and the pope’s teaching authority ex cathedra, must surely have been greeted with private incredulity in the bar and the afore-mentioned hoots of derision from Catholics on the bench and in the laity. In the end, if you make a stupid and obviously-false statement, it doesn’t matter how learned you are on another subject, how respected you are, or even how much moral or even legal authority you possess when acting within the scope of the responsibilities of your day job. None of that will save you if you walk out on a limb and make non-privileged statements that are, as Longenecker put it, just plain wrong.


  1. Bump, Who is more Fallible…?, The Wire, Dec. 26, 2013, http://www.thewire.com/politics/2013/12/who-more-fallible-economics-paul-ryan-or-pope-francis/356503.
  2. Bill Glauber, Paul Ryan signals support for Kenosha casino, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Online, Dec. 19, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/paul-ryan/paul-ryan-signals-support-for-kenosha-casino-b99167734z1-236595381.html.
  3. Tupy, Is the Pope Right…, The Atlantic, Dec. 11, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/is-the-pope-right-about-the-world/282276; Booth, Pessimist…, Standpoint, published December 2013, http://standpointmag.co.uk/counterpoints-january-february-14-papal-pessimist-philip-booth-pope-francis-poverty; see also Dan Calabrese, The right way to respond to Pope Francis on economics, Best of Cain, Dec. 26, 2013, http://www.caintv.com/the-right-way-to-respond-to-po.
  4. See Tornielli, “Never be afraid of tenderness,” Vatican Insider, Dec. 14, 2013, http://www.lastampa.it/2013/12/14/esteri/vatican-insider/en/never-be-afraid-of-tenderness-5BqUfVs9r7W1CJIMuHqNeI/pagina.html.
  5. Rev. Dwight Longenecker, Is Pope Francis Just Plain Wrong?, Standing on My Head, Dec. 12, 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2013/12/is-pope-francis-just-plain-wrong.html.
  6. https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1006.
  7. See, e.g., John-Henry Westen, Pope Francis says, Baptize babies of unwed mothers, because they chose life over abortion, LifeSiteNews, May 31, 2013, http://www.lifesitenews.com/blog/pope-francis-says-baptize-babies-of-unwed-mothers-because-they-chose-life-o/
  8. See Lumen gentium, no. 25 (2d Vat. Co., 1964).
  9. See id., no. 18; Pastor æternus, ch. IV.9 (Vat. Co., 1870).
  10. Cf. 28 USC § 1367(a); Aldinger v. Howard, 427 U.S. 1, 11 (1976) (Rehnquist, J.) (quoting Fulton Bank v. Hozier, 267 U.S. 276, 280 (1925)).
  11. Fred Shapiro, The Most-Cited Legal Scholars, 29 J. Legal Studies 409 (2000).
  12. Richard Posner, How Many Constitutions Can Liberals Have?, The New Republic, Oct. 19, 2012, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/108755/how-many-constitutions-liberals (reviewing Akhil Amar, America’s Unwritten Constitution (2000)).