Conservatives who are fuming over Pope Francis’ speech need to take a deep breath, and then ask themselves this: How do you know Pope Francis is being misquoted? His lips are moving.
AP’s write-up of the Pope’s speech this morning contains many paraphrases and few quotations. That should already make you suspicious, given the media’s propensity to mischaracterize just about anything any pope says. And if you were suspicious this morning when you saw the news coverage, you were right.
The AP headline: “POPE DEMANDS ‘LEGITIMATE REDISTRIBUTION’ OF WEALTH. The lede:
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis called Friday for governments to redistribute wealth to the poor in a new spirit of generosity to help curb the “economy of exclusion” that is taking hold today.
Sorry, but you can’t read his short speech and come away with that. Yes, Pope Francis discussed “equitable development” and a spirit of generosity, and he even mentioned — near the end, almost as an afterthought — that the state should continue to play a role in this. But there’s no “demand” for broader “legitimate redistribution” by government. Here is the one line, right near the end of his speech, in which Francis used that phrase:
A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.
First of all, note the word “also.” Why is that word there? Because if you read the speech, you’ll see that Francis spent the first 90 percent of his speech without mentioning “the State” or “government.” He said that the needs of the world’s poor should awaken everyone’s conscience and lead us to work to make sure all of humanity shares in human progress. He cited one particular story in the Gospel about a wealthy man (Zacchaeus) who after meeting Jesus “put everything, freely yet immediately and indisputably, at the service of others.”
Perhaps in anticipation of the shoddy coverage he ended up getting, he even downplayed the role of “economic and social systems and theories” and, as popes usually tend to do, avoided getting into specifics about political solutions.
When Francis said “legitimate redistribution” right near the end, he was clearly condoning some kind of role for governments in assisting the poor. Perhaps he even believes in a more robust role than he lets on here. But he didn’t offer anything on that topic here. To be sure, a demand for a more robust government role would not necessarily be inconsistent with anything he said, but it’s also not what he said. In fact, the use of the word “legitimate” here appears to play the opposite role that the AP’s headline implies — namely, the Pope is implying that not all government redistribution is “legitimate,” and that there might be unspecified limits to what it is just for the state to do. (Which is, in fact, part of the message of the earlier papal documents he cites immediately before that line.)
Don’t take my word for it. Read the speech yourself, and then go back and look at the AP headline and lede. People of good will can certainly disagree on the issue of how robust government’s role should be in “redistribution,” but people of good will cannot read that speech and mistake it for call for more government redistribution.