Pope Francis and the Caring Society, edited by Robert M. Whaples
Independent Institute, 2017
Review by Lindsay Myers
For some, Pope Francis might function as this year’s controversial figure who mustn’t be mentioned over Christmas dinner, lest Uncle Fred leaves before the pie is served. His approach, often so rhetorically different than his predecessors, has brought the hands of many together—some in applause, some in prayer, and some wringing with anxiety. The document that rests at the center of the controversy is, of course, Laudato Si’, Francis’ 2015 encyclical wherein he takes a heavy swing at the economic system many in the United States hold dear and makes several declarative statements on the environmental status of “our common home.” In an effort to take seriously Francis’ invitation for “all people” to enter into a dialogue with him on these issues, Robert M. Whaples has compiled a collection of interrelated essays called Pope Francis and the Caring Society. Whaples, along with ten other Catholic voices active in economic and environmental affairs, examines the various economic, environmental, familial, and historical claims made by Francis in Laudato Si’ and throughout the rest of his papacy. Fortunately, the collection strikes just the right balance between charitable and critical. Each contributor approaches the Holy Father with the respect due to his office and with a genuine eye toward charitable interpretation, despite concerns that Francis’ claims are underdeveloped, misinformed, or hyperbolic. The collection is an excellent tool for those seeking an introduction to Francis’ economic and environmental policies. It grounds both in his wider pastoral approach and the long history of Catholic Social Teaching articulated by his predecessors. Though the volume is not without its own flaws—including some unhelpful graphs—it is on the whole thorough, well researched, and devoid of the inflammatory rhetoric that has caused so much anxiety during the Holy Father’s papacy.
One of the most interesting arguments raised by the collection is that the free market system has the most potential for economic, social, and environmental good because it—perhaps unintentionally—works within the limitations of human nature. A.M.C. Waterman’s essay, “Pope Francis on the Environmental Crisis,” roots the theological premises of such an argument in Augustine and later in John Paul II’s Centesimus annus. Philip Booth bolsters Waterman’s arguments with passages from Aquinas in his essay, “Property Rights and Conservation.” The basic tenets of the argument are as follows: Man was wounded by original sin and thus relies on certain sociopolitical systems to counteract his fallen state. Because the free market system does not necessarily place self interest in opposition to the common good, it produces “unintended consequences that are socially benign” (148). Thus, regardless of whether economists will ever acknowledge Pope Benedict XVI and Francis’ premise that purchasing is “always a moral—and not simply an economic—act,” the residual benefits of the free market system can (and do) support the common good.
Whaples and Watermen are skeptical about whether Francis will ever allow the free market a place in his economic vision. Whaples says that Francis “turns the logic of the world on its head,” and that his call for a lifestyle of extreme humility and simplicity is incompatible with any socio-political system man can devise. Waterman similarly argues that virtue is “necessary [but] not sufficient” to bring about the change in human behavior for which Francis calls. Rather, the market must incentivize that change by working within man’s desire for possessions and financial security. Many of the contributors cite Francis’ hyperbolic rhetoric and seeming blanket distrust of capitalism as antithetical to his call for dialogue. Andrew M. Yuengert’s essay, “Pope Francis, His Predecessors, and the Market” and Samuel Gregg’s “Understanding Pope Francis: Argentina, Economic Failure, and the Teologia del Pueblo” ground the Holy Father’s vision within the framework of his predecessors and the historical and cultural circumstances of Francis’ life in Argentina. Both essays help soften some of Francis’ bolder claims by demonstrating that they are either consistent with Church teaching or colored by the devastation Francis witnessed under Argentinian Peronism.
The biggest disappointment of Pope Francis and the Caring Society is that it lacks an essay in true support of Francis’ economic and environmental claims. In the spirit of true dialogue, one might expect at least one voice who earnestly considers what Francis’ vision might look like in practice and offers plausible means of implementation at the micro and macro level. Philip Booth’s essay on private property rights comes as close to engaging with Francis’ calls for reform as any of the other contributors. He proposes that the work of 2009 Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom might lay the foundation for a real-world solution to the problem of overconsumption. Her thesis is simple: communities and individuals would benefit from property held and managed in common by those who have interest in it. Her theory can be understood within the context of the principle of subsidiarity and deserves further exploration by Francis and the economic community as a whole.
For those looking for an introductory exploration of Francis’ economic and environmental claims, Pope Francis and the Caring Society is the perfect starting place. The essays can be read in or out of sequence and generally provide focused and well researched considerations of the strengths and weaknesses of Francis’ vision. More importantly, they allow the reader himself to participate in Francis’ call for dialogue by providing him with several informed perspectives to consider within the context of Francis’ own.
Lindsay Myers is a wife, mother, avid reader, and freelance writer living outside of Washington, DC. She is finishing a master’s degree in English literature at the Catholic University of America and expecting the birth of her second baby sometime in January.