When I first heard that the new pope took the name Francis in an effort to focus the Church on the poor, I thought it could go either way. St. Francis gave up his wealth and lived in poverty, and Franciscan priests take a vow of poverty to this day. Dedicating oneself to the poor is noble, of course, but I have grown skeptical when the poor are invoked as a call to action. I have found that too often the poor are used as an excuse to expand the size and scope of government, while decade after decade we are told we must redouble our efforts in the War on Poverty.
My fear that the new pope might have a political or economic message rather than a purely moral one was heightened when I realized he was a Jesuit–some of that order are well known for promoting governmental redistribution of wealth, which to me is not charity but theft.
This very thought process, however, made me realize how cynical I had become. I have come to the point where I hurry past beggars and think ill of them, wondering, “Would you sell your vote for cigarettes?” Or being tempted to mutter, “I pay enough, buy your own beer.”
As a libertarian, I believe that human beings have moral obligations that go far beyond our legal obligations. I believe that a free society is possible only if social power is exercised where needed so that the State has no excuse to expand into areas where it doesn’t belong. To this end, it is critical that we have mercy and compassion toward the poor, even the self-imposed poverty of the drunk or the druggie. (Mercy and compassion cannot be judgmental or none of us would deserve it.)
But where do our moral obligations begin when the legal regime claims to satisfy them for us? By continually raising the tax bar so that virtually all of our surplus money is absorbed by the State, we often have no choice but to “trust” it to provide for us in old age and to administer our charity for us. Unfortunately, the State doesn’t even fulfill its own obligations, much less ours. Furthermore, this forced “charity” is not given with an open hand and thus is without virtue, nor is it taken with gratitude and hope but with resentment and contempt.
In the end, the exploitation of the poor for political purposes overtaxes and embitters those who would otherwise be most able and willing to fulfill Christ’s exhortations to charity, and at the same time leaves the poor basely focused on political means rather than economic means to rise up out of the depths.
I believe the new pope is simply what he appears to be: a humble man who cares deeply about the poor. To that end, I hope he can guide us to a better understanding of how to be moral in a system that promotes the opposite.