The Limits Of Charity

Eric Frith finds fault with Pope Francis for not going far enough in his critiques of capitalism, arguing that his calls for generosity and deep sympathy for the poor don’t address the structural problems at work:

By invoking John Paul II’s formulation of the “option for the poor” as a call to Catholic charity, Francis obscures what should be plain. He denounces the neoliberal mythology of the autonomous and self-regulating market and the market-based commoditization of human life. But his refusal to take on the state, his insistence that charity is the only remedy for the excesses and materialism of capitalism, is in effect an acquiescence to neoliberal logic.

This does not just reflect a paucity of social theory. One does not need Marxist economics to see that encouraging the free flow of commodities while criminalizing the flow of labor will trap the poor between a rock and a hard place. One does not need to stake out a theological position on the efficient markets hypothesis to see that arming police like soldiers will lead to collateral damage. Francis prays for politicians who will take inequality seriously, but never makes reference to liberation theology’s cornerstone scriptural story: the Exodus, when with God’s help the Hebrews freed themselves from slavery.

“Charity,” St. Augustine wrote, “is no substitute for justice withheld.” If the Vatican truly wishes to engage with liberation theology, rather than eulogize it in its sunset moments, Pope Francis will have to address the power behind the markets—the police, the military, and the whole military-carceral state—as [Oscar] Romero, [Miguel] D’Escoto, and indigenous communities in Chiapas did.