Pope Francis denounces ‘trickle-down’ economic theories in critique of inequality

Pope Francis on Tuesday sharply criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets in a wide-ranging and decidedly populist teaching that revealed how he plans to reshape the Catholic Church.

In his most authoritative writings as pontiff, Francis decried an “idolatry of money” in secular culture and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny.” But he reserved a large part of his critique for what he sees as an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, calling for more local governance and greater inclusiveness — including “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”

The 50,000-word statement is the latest sign that Francis intends to push the church in a new direction. On some issues — such as income inequality and poverty — he is echoing concerns long pursued by his predecessors. On others, such as the management of the church, he is embarking on a new path marked by less central authority.

Francis, who was elected in March to lead the church after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, hails from Buenos Aires and is the first non-European to lead the church in more than a millennium.

Since becoming pope, he has been the subject of fascination and attention among Catholics, political leaders and people all over the world as he has taken a more open approach to the papacy. He has adopted a softer tone toward gay people, eschewed lavish features of the papal lifestyle, washed the feet of convicts and repeatedly called for greater efforts to lift up the world’s poor.

On Tuesday, he showed a willingness to use tough language in attacking what he views as the excesses of capitalism. Using a phrase with special resonance in the United States, he strongly criticized an economic theory — often affiliated with conservatives — that discourages taxation and regulation.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”

Although Francis has previously raised concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the direct reference to “trickle-down” economics in the English translation of his statement is striking.

The phrase has often been used derisively to describe a popular version of conservative economic philosophy that argues that allowing the wealthy to run their businesses unencumbered by regulation or taxation bears economic benefits that lead to more jobs and income for the rest of society. Liberals and Democratic officials have rejected the theory, saying it is contradicted by economic evidence.

Some scholars say the pope’s statement should invariably shape the thinking of today’s Catholics.

“There’s no way a Catholic who is a serious intellectual can ever again not address the issue of income inequality, of the structural sins of our economic system. This is so front and center,” said Michael Sean Winters, a fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. “This is a pastor’s voice. He’s saying, ‘If we’re serious Christians, we need to be knee-deep in this stuff.’ ”

Francis’s words may ripple across many fronts.

The pope’s statements — especially if they continue — could impact U.S. politics. Several potential contenders for the presidency in 2016 are economic conservatives who are also Catholic, and liberal Catholic groups have in the past taken aim at what they view as the overly stingy policies of Republicans who have little regard for the role of government in redistributing income.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a recent proponent of those policies and a devout Catholic, has said before that he tries to uphold Catholic teaching “as best I can” and believes his policies match Catholic teaching because they emphasize small institutions close to the people — for example, churches — over the role of state or federal government. A spokesman for Ryan declined to comment Tuesday on the pope’s statement.

Ed Morrissey, senior editor at the popular conservative Web site HotAir.com and a Catholic, on Tuesday praised Francis, saying the pope is offering a useful reminder that “market-­based solutions have to be properly functioning.”

“It’s not enough to say: ‘I believe in market forces.’ This is a challenge for those of us who believe we should rely more on market and economic forces,” Morrissey said. “That’s not a perfect solution either.”

According to polls, U.S. Catholics are more supportive than not of government taking action to improve living standards and say the wealth gap is historically high, but they are divided over the size of government and whether the nation’s biggest problem is economic unfairness or overregulation of business. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September 2012, Catholic voters split on whether government should act to reduce the gap between wealthy and less-well-off Americans.

Helping the poor and combating inequality have long been tenets of papal statements and classical Catholic teaching, which supports carefully regulated markets and even a government role in redistributing wealth.

Yet, although previous popes discussed the disenfranchised, they did not share Francis’s background or speak at a time when inequality was such a concern worldwide.

Many of the world’s richest countries are experiencing historic levels of income inequality. And even in the developing world, there are emerging concerns about whether workers will benefit from their countries’ increasing prosperity. In China, for instance, officials have made repeated promises to tackle the country’s widening income gap.

Winters said a key to understanding Francis is that he’s from Argentina and was archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2001, when the country’s economy collapsed.

“When you see people trying to bless capitalism, he has a very real, vivid experience of capitalism and what it has brought to his country, and it’s not a happy experience,” Winters said. “The key is — this is a guy from the Global South. This kind of poverty — there’s no food-stamp program. And these are his people.”

Francis’s language on the economy has been far more accessible than that of Benedict, a theologian who wrote primarily in thick books hard to untangle for the regular lay­person. And Pope John Paul II’s warnings on economic inequality were swallowed at times by his war on Communism, a far more dangerous problem in the church’s eyes because of its anti-religious bent.

Francis’s document Tuesday also challenged Catholic authority, from his own to that of bishops and priests. He echoed the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which emphasized raising up the influence of laypeople — an under­taking that many historians, as well as Francis, say never happened.

Francis wrote that the church needs to be “decentralized,” including the power of his office, which he said needs “conversion.” He appeared to promote giving more authority to regional bishops conferences to run their affairs and even set doctrine.

In a section about the role of women that is likely to be closely analyzed, Francis emphasized that the sacramental role of priests — the ability to baptize and take confession, among other things — shouldn’t be overstated.

“It can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power ‘we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity and holiness,’ ” he wrote, quoting John Paul II.

The question of authority weaves through every Catholic controversy, from who gets to decide who qualifies for Communion to who has the status to interpret the pope. Francis has made clear in this and other writings that he doesn’t think women can be priests, but by drawing a bright line around priestly authority, he seemed to be emphasizing the possibility of expanding the role of Catholic women in the future.

“He understands that today authority is earned, it’s not demanded. You can’t assume it,” said John Carr, a longtime head of the U.S. bishops’ program on peace and justice issues who runs a think tank at Georgetown University on Catholic social teachings and public life. “This is the way people who are in touch with ordinary life talk.”

What the document means for women, Carr said, is that “we have a lot of catching up to do.”