German experts have defended Pope Francis against accusations of “socialism” in his new encyclical Fratelli tutti, insisting that the document “stands in the tradition of social doctrine”.

– “Since its beginning social doctrine has been committed to a just economic and social order”

With his “economic criticism” in Fratelli tutti, “the Pope stands in the tradition of the social doctrine of the Church, which since its beginning has been committed to a just economic and social order”, professor of Christian Social Ethics at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the Ruhr University Bochum Joachim Wiemeyer wrote in an essay on the pontiff’s new encyclical October 16.

Wiemeyer recalled that the Pope has come in for criticism in Germany over Fratelli tutti, above all from Clemens Fuest, one of Germany’s most important economists and the president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research and director of the Center for Economic Studies at the University of Munich.

Among other things, Fuest has accused the Pope of “nonsense” economics in his new encyclical and of “attack[ing] the market economy and globalisation which have allowed hundreds of millions to escape poverty” while “not say[ing] a word of critique about ‘socialists’ like Chavez and Maduro who have transformed their country [Venezuela] into a poorhouse and a nightmare of violence”.

But Wiemeyer rejected both allegations of Fuest’s.

The social ethicist explained that with regard to the poor the Pope’s issue is not absolute but relative poverty, since as he puts it “wealth has increased, but together with inequality, with the result that new forms of poverty are emerging” (FT 21).

“Poverty must always be understood and gauged in the context of the actual opportunities available in each concrete historical period”, Francis insists.

With regard to the accusation that the Pope harbours “socialist” sympathies, Wiemeyer clarified: “That the Pope is by no means an advocate of a socialist economic order is made clear by the fact that in this encyclical (FT 123) he… expressly welcomes business activity (with social responsibility)”.

Not only that, but “with his frequent criticism of ‘corruption’ (FT 113, 125, 176f., 239), the Pope makes it clear that economic activity must take place in a context of the rule of law”, the expert added.

According to Wiemeyer, the Pope’s critiques of “radical individualism” (FT 105) and his advocacy for “an economy that is an integral part of a political, social, cultural and popular programme directed to the common good” (FT 179) are designed to remedy the failures of economic liberalism, including that that model is blind to the connection between economic and political power, to distributional conflicts and to the race of businesses to the bottom to pay less tax.

– Jesuit social ethicist: “Capitalism has triumphed, but it is not right”

Along with Wiemeyer, another German expert to defend the Pope against criticisms of Fratelli tutti has been renowned Jesuit social ethicist Friedhelm Hengsbach, a former director of the Institute for Economic and Social Ethical Studies of the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt.

In a lecture October 19 at the Catholic Private University of Linz, in Austria, Hengsbach – who for decades has been claiming that “another capitalism is possible”, as the title of one of his books has it – quoted enthusiastically from Fratelli tutti to the effect that the free market “by itself cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith” (FT 168).

According to Hengsbach, “capitalism has triumphed, but it is not right”. Along with Pope Francis, the Jesuit social ethicist continues to work for another economic system which unlike neoliberalism guarantees just social relations and a say for all who affected by the production of surplus value.

More on Novena on ‘Fratelli tutti’:

Ecumenical Patriarch: ‘Fratelli tutti’ “the crowning and happy conclusion of all social doctrine”

‘Fratelli tutti’: Here’s what the Pope really thinks about free enterprise, explained by one of his closest advisors (full text)

Cardinal defends Pope against ‘Fratelli tutti’ “communism” slur: Francis “doesn’t change so much as a comma” of Catholic social doctrine

In ‘Fratelli tutti’, Pope sets out vision for new world order post-COVID beyond nationalism, capitalism


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.