Pope Francis reminds us that our economic systems should reflect our moral values

During his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis is expected to address economic issues like inequality and poverty, continuing his criticism of trickle-down economic policy. These are issues that affect the lives of everyday Americans: wages for the vast majority of workers in the United States have been stagnant for 35 years despite growing productivity, lawmakers continue to chip away at workers’ right to unionize, and the gulf between top earners and the rest of the nation continues to grow.

While many have lauded Pope Francis for consistently discussing economic inequality and poverty, some on the right have been less enthusiastic. In response to the pope’s encyclical on poverty and the environment, Jeb Bush, for example, remarked, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

Bush’s dismissal of the pope’s positions on economic issues not only contradicts his earlier claims about the relationship between religion and politics, but also ignores the history of his own church. Far from emerging from a vacuum, Pope Francis is continuing a tradition of Catholic social teaching that stretches back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on the conditions facing working people. And this attempt to respond to economic and labor issues from a Christian framework is also not solely Catholic. At the same time Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical entered the intellectual sphere, American Protestants like Washington Gladden (a pastor and prominent early thinker of what would become the Social Gospel) were also working to address the conditions of working people through Christianity.

While there is not room here to appreciate the full nuance and scope of these three thinkers, we can take an important lesson from them regardless of our partisan or religious leanings. They show us that our nation’s response to issues of labor relations and economics cannot be left to the dictates of market ideology; rather, it should be informed (though not dictated) by our moral motivations and judgments. Pope Francis, Pope Leo XIII, and Gladden all identify the gap between the haves and the have-nots as a key contributor to the challenges facing working people—challenges like low wages and the inability of workers to organize. They also recognize that these challenges only exacerbate the inequality that caused them in the first place.

Pope Francis criticized trickle-down economics in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” observing that “while the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.” This inequality, he continued, “is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” Pope Leo XIII painted an even more dismal picture of the effects of inequality, writing that “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” And in Applied Christianity, Gladden pointed out that “plainly there is something out of joint in our machinery of distribution,” because despite the rapid accumulation of wealth that occurred in the United States between 1860 and 1880, “poverty, even pauperism, is increasing still more rapidly.”

Each of these thinkers draws upon Christianity to condemn the economic ideologies leading to such an unequal distribution of wealth and resources. They also draw upon Christianity to address this vast inequality and envision an economic system that reflects their moral values. In his encyclical on poverty and the environment, Pope Francis explains that the need to protect employment derives from the idea that “work is a concept of the relationship which we can and must have with what is other than ourselves.” Far from being simply a way to foster economic growth and corporate profitability, work is important for its role in fostering personal growth and fulfillment. Invoking this concept of work, he repeats Pope Benedict XVI’s recommendation that “we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”

Though they were writing in the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII and Gladden both recommended policies that are still called for today. Both were careful to uphold the right to private property and position themselves against the rise of socialism, but also believed that the state has a role to play in alleviating poverty and regulating capitalism.

In Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, wages are highlighted as “a subject of great importance,” especially given that wages provide workers with a means to acquire their natural right of private property. Because workers must be able to acquire that which they need in order to live, and because wages are the method of acquiring it, “wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner.” Furthermore, law should “favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners,” therefore justifying higher wages.

Gladden, meanwhile, was particularly fond of a model of profit sharing, explaining, “The wage system, when it rests on competition as its sole basis, is anti-social and anti-Christian.” Instead, the “Christian employer” should “admit his laborers into an industrial partnership with himself by giving them a fixed share in the profits of production, to be divided among them.” In addition to ensuring that workers could share in their company’s prosperity, this would also succeed in making it “the daily habit of the workman to think of the interest of the employer, and of the employer to think of the interest of the workman.”

Republican leaders’ claims that the pope has no business discussing economic and political issues run directly contrary to this century-old tradition of religious teaching about the economy.

Pope Francis, Pope Leo XIII, and Gladden agree that economic policies that leave tens of millions impoverished while others accumulate extraordinary wealth are not just economically inefficient or sub-optimal—they are morally wrong, as are the political decisions that treat these outcomes as acceptable or even desirable. These religious leaders and thinkers advocate for an economic system that reflects not only the values of self-sufficiency, hard work, and just rewards, but also compassion, fairness, and mutual respect.