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The Little Flowers of Pope Francis
The personally convicting message of Evangelii Gaudium
Most Rev. James D. Conley -- December 2, 2013

Among other things, the pope critiques the belief that unregulated free markets will "inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world." The Holy Father criticizes those who place "crude and na´ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

Thoughtful Catholics, thoughtful economists, and thoughtful policymakers know that there is no perfect economic system. They observe that markets cannot be totally rational, or totally just. Even when markets are self-correcting, they note, consequences for greed, undue excess, or irrational speculation are spread among real human beings, with real families and real dignity at stake. Most reasonable conservative leaders recognize the value of limited government regulation, even in mostly free markets, as essential for protecting the most vulnerable.

Evangelii Gaudium did not reject capitalism, or even particular market theories. Instead, it rejected idolatry of any economic system as a panacea, and it called Catholics to human solidarity in the context of public policy. The pope affirmed that markets must be understood and administered in justice, with due regard for the sovereignty and solidarity of families and human dignity. Pope Benedict XVI presented similar ideas in depth in 2009, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine. Evangelii Gaudium's economic message was particularly powerful because it called all of us to consider the consequences of our own financial decisions.

The personal and convicting message of Pope Francis requires us to examine carefully the humanity of our public policy, and of our private lives. It calls us to self-examination, and, more important, self-denial. It calls us to temper the pursuit of our own prosperity by our obligations to our fellow human beings. But Pope Francis is not calling for an advent of socialist economic policy or radical income redistribution. The Holy Father has lived through Latin America's 50-year cycle of extremist economic policies. He's calling for moderation, for freedom, and above all, for virtue.

But because Pope Francis's message is personally convicting, it is now being reduced to a sophomoric caricature.

Last week, one conservative commentator called Pope Francis's message "pure Marxism." He said the pope is "dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong," and suggested that Pope Francis is ignorant of basic economics and has no business even raising the subject. Why? To ensure that the Holy Father's message, like Saint Francis's, won't be taken seriously. Eight hundred years after his namesake, Pope Francis is reduced to a cartoonish socialist to quiet consciences rankled by exhortation.

The Holy Father is not a politician or an economist. But he is a very good pastor. He recognizes the sinfulness of Christians and the shortcomings of the Church. He recognizes our vices and our temptations. He calls us to be the best of our humanity: He calls us to discipleship in Jesus Christ and solidarity with our brothers and sisters. The invitation of Evangelii Gaudium is challenging and discomforting. We can accept the challenge of his message, or we can neuter it of meaning. But however we respond, the invitation to virtue, solidarity, and sanctity will remain an invitation to a Gospel of pure joy.

- The Most Rev. James D. Conley is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.

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