Editorial: Pope is a spiritual, not economic leader


Pope Francis continues his six-day tour of the United States today with a visit to the White House, where he’ll find a host in President Barack Obama sympathetic to much of his agenda on social and economic matters.

Pope Francis is quickly becoming one of the most beloved and celebrated popes of the modern era, largely for his efforts to open the Roman Catholic Church to the people.

He has set about to fulfill the 50-year-old reforms of Vatican II that were aimed at making the church more accessible and more modern.

His well-expressed compassion and commitment to service is credited with bringing lapsed Catholics back to the fold, and is even increasing interest in the priesthood.

Among his major initiatives is a softening of the Vatican’s hard-line view on homosexuality, divorce and abortion. Pope Francis famously declared it is not for him to judge gays, and has offered reconciliation to Catholics who have divorced or had an abortion.

Mostly, though, his inspiration is his leadership in carrying out the church’s mission to comfort the afflicted and serve mankind. He has made it the hallmark of his papacy to alleviate poverty.

That has rallied a church in desperate need of resurgence. Finances of the Catholic church are in crisis, in no small part due to $3 billion in payouts to the victims of sexual abuse by priests. That scandal disillusioned many Catholics and contributed to a sharp decline in mass attendance that is beginning to reverse under the pope’s guidance.

In the United States, 22 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, so stabilizing the church is vital to the nation’s religious health. And certainly, the pope’s focus on serving the poor where they live is an admirable return to the foundation of the faith.

But, unfortunately, his economic ideas would actually exacerbate poverty.

Capitalism is a frequent target of the pope’s criticism. He has declared it an enemy of the poor and a system that promotes inequality. And yet more people have been lifted out of poverty thanks to the spread of capitalism than any other influence in world history. The Economist reports that over the past 20 years, 1 billion people have risen from extreme poverty, and two-thirds of that number made their gains because of economic growth.

In the developing world, extreme poverty is almost non-existent. In those Third World nations that have embraced industrialization, traditional measures of poverty such as infant mortality rates are rapidly declining. Even in China, a communist nation that has embraced its own form of capitalism, 680 million people escaped from lives of misery between 1981 and 2010, and the extreme poverty rate has fallen to 10 percent from 84 percent.

Likewise, Pope Francis has joined the war on global warming, supporting radical action to curb carbon emissions and reduce other forms of pollution. The church certainly should urge its people to be good stewards of the Earth.

But eliminating poverty cannot be done through charity alone; it depends on creating jobs and growth. Those depend on a healthy industrial base. And that base requires affordable energy. Measures that shut factories and cause energy costs to soar will kill jobs and raise the cost of living, and the poor will inevitably suffer the most.

Pope Francis’ renewal of the Catholic Church is welcome, and as a transformational spiritual leader he should be celebrated. But his economic and environmental policies should be weighed against their effect on the very people he is trying to help.