An observation for Mr. Novak on Pope Francis and “trickle-down” in EG 54

I note that Michael Novak has tackled the issue of the Pope’s comment on economics in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium.  He had an interview with National Review.

Alas, I think Mr. Novak got a couple things wrong.

In a summary/commentary on the long interview (I haven’t reviewed the whole thing yet) Novak says:

“Note first that “trickle-down” nowhere appears in the original Spanish, as it would have done if the pope had meant to invoke the battle-cry of the American Democrats against the American Republicans … Only those hostile to capitalism and Reagan’s successful reforms, and to the policies of Republicans in general after the downward mobility of the Carter years, use the derisive expression “trickle-down,” intended to caricature what actually happened under Reagan, namely, dramatic upward mobility. “


First, we assume, reasonably, that Spanish was the language Francis worked in the most. I have little doubt that others worked on the draft of the Exhortation, and that probably parts of it were written in Italian (maybe even in German!).  But parts of it were also certainly composed in Spanish (consider whom Francis tasked on the Gang of Eight Committee).

So, the phrase “trickle-down” does appear in the Spanish in the Spanish form of the phrase.  HERE 

54. En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del «derrame», que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.

“Las teorías del «derrame»”.  That’s “trickle-down” economics.

Anyway, I am glad that Novak has joined the conversation.  It is good to keep the ideas kicking around.

Diverging a bit…the real problem with the way that the sentence is translated into English rests on the distortion of the phrase “por sí mismo” into “inevitably” rather than “by itself”.

In the (distorted) English translation the Pope’s criticism seems to land heavily on people who back “trickle-down” economics (which is already a loaded term used by liberals to denigrate a more free-market model).   But the Pope really seems to be criticizing, in Spanish, those who think that the “trickle-down” approach (and yes, that term is a distortion) can help the poor on its own or by itself, that is, without people as individuals taking personal responsibility to help the poor.  People in business have to act morally and responsibly, with an eye on their neighbor, and not just sit back and say that “A free market will eventually help all those poor people all by itself“, thus exoneration them of any personal obligation to do their part.

That, I think, is what the Pope is saying.   It is less a criticism of the free-market (though he clearly isn’t a great fan after his limited personal experience in the disaster that is Argentina) than it is of people who think that a “system” alone will take care of the poor without personal involvement.

So, if I understand the Holy Father correctly, I entirely agree with that first part of EG 54, so long as it is properly translated.  I add that I think a free market is, in fact, the best way to help the poor rise from poverty.  Socialism, Communism… no.   And before some liberal nut suggests that I am for a free-market wholly unfettered by laws, rules, government, …. no.  That’s just stupid.  It could also be mendacious (a liberal tactic).  There must be basic rule of law and regulation so that people can work together with clarity and trust each other in transactions and have recourse when there are disputes or misunderstandings or when people with bad will don’t fulfill their part.  At the same time, no economic system, free or not, will function in an acceptable way if the people involved don’t share good values.  I think they should be religious values and virtues (let’s just say it… Catholic).

That said, even when those values are absent, a free market is probably the worst system we could adopt…. except for all the others.

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  1. JLCG says:

    Spanish is my paternal language.
    Por si mismo means by itself, without the addition of another cause. It means necessarily inevitably in complete freedom, without having to respond to any contingent cause, having within itself its own being, its own motion. The acorn becomes the fully grown oak by itself, por si mismo, without any other reason that the one that is encrypted in itself. [Acorns do not become oak trees “inevitably”, as any squirrel will inform you.]

  2. timothyputnam says:

    In the spirit of “Reading Francis through Benedict.”

    Similar statements from Benedict at the Inaugural Session of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, at Aparecida.

    “In truth, just structures are a condition without which a just order in society is not possible. But how do they arise? How do they function? Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves; they declared that not only would they have no need of any prior individual morality, but that they would promote a communal morality. And this ideological promise has been proved false. The facts have clearly demonstrated it. The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful oppression of souls. And we can also see the same thing happening in the West, where the distance between rich and poor is growing constantly, and giving rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.”

    “Just structures are, as I have said, an indispensable condition for a just society, but they neither arise nor function without a moral consensus in society on fundamental values, and on the need to live these values with the necessary sacrifices, even if this goes against personal interest.”

    This is what I understood Francis to say in the most debated little section of the Exhortation.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. It happens to be true that a free market unfettered by Christian principles is an evil. Without guiding Christian principles, then anything people are willing to pay for is permissible. And people are willing to pay for some pretty vile things.

  4. Priam1184 says:

    Except for ALL others Father? Have we seen everything else? I don’t think we should forget Father that the ideas that govern the contemporary world (religious freedom, free markets, democracy [whatever that means]) were all initially put forward by men who were implacable enemies of the Catholic Church and sought only her annihilation. Why do we want to follow the path that THEY have lain out for us?

  5. wmeyer says:

    Miss Anita Moore, all men are sinners. Clearly this is true of our elected officials. The market is, in fact, pretty heavily fettered, and I see many vile things offered: abortions, morning-after abortion pills, a wide range of contraceptives, and so on. All approved by the foxes which have been set to guard the hen-house.

    We must each of us be responsible for our own choices. Relying on government (a pretty sad sort of self-delusion, as history shows) will not get it done.

  6. PA mom says:

    The Liberal argument goes that capitalism has gotten more cold, cruel and inhumane.

    I am beginning to believe that what has really been happening is that as our society has become less and less Christian, the tempering effects of the formerly strong Christian society have been wearing off and capitalism has begun to appear more cold, cruel and inhumane.

    But many Liberals strongly reject Christianity as a force of good, so they cannot see how the lack of it is causing so much new trouble.

  7. Deacon Augustine says:

    PA mom, I tend to agree with you. The problems of capitalism are synonymous with the problems of society generally – sin. Greed, envy, sloth and lust are not factors which can be legislated out of existence by changing the economic system.

  8. wmeyer says:

    The market sells what people want to buy–it is self-correcting. As our society has moved more and more into secular hedonism, denying the existence of right and wrong, the market has adapted. Equally, if we can move the society back in the direction of a Christian moral ethic, the market will again adapt. When goods fly off the shelf, manufacturers will produce more, and retailers will make available more shelf space.

  9. acardnal says:

    Despite its flaws, I think Larry Kudlow is right when he says that “free market capitalism is the best path to prosperity.”

  10. boko fittleworth says:

    Rush Limbaugh said on his show today (Monday) as a very brief aside, before immediately going on to something else, that Pope Francis or the Vatican was issuing some kind of follow-up to or clarification of the economics bit of Evangelii gaudium. Anyone know what Rush might have been referring to?

  11. JKnott says:

    I think Father’s explanation is very helpful.
    Also, it came to mind that Our Lady of Fatima said that if her requests were not heeded that Russia would spread her errors. She didn’t say that America would spread its errors.

  12. Grabski says:

    Pope Francis spoke quite forthrightly against abortion in the Apostolic Exhortation, basically twinning our throw away culture and abortion.

    We need to make sure that is well known, esp when liberals begin to quote Francis.

  13. Priam1184 says:

    @wmeyer Might it be that the world we have created that is dominated by the market, dominated by buying and selling, dominated by the fact that the sole reason for its institutions is to bring goods to market, fix a price for them, and facilitate the exchange; might that be the reason we have lost all sense of right and wrong? When everything is designed to be bought and sold and everything has a price, then where is right and where is wrong? We have entirely forgotten that there are in fact other ways to live on this earth, and we have forgotten as well that there are many things that God created that He did not intend to be put onto the market.

  14. wmeyer says:

    Priam1184, you appear to posit a “market” which drives consumers; whereas consumers are the market, and suppliers will respond to that market. Attempting to control what is offered led to Prohibition and its repeal, as well as to the enormously expensive and minimally effective War on Drugs.

    Laws against murder have not freed society from the presence of murderers. Shall we keep repeating failed patterns in pursuit of utopia?

  15. TomG says:

    I think the late Irving Kristol (Bill’s dad) had it right: the title of one his books was “Two Cheers for Capitalism”. (A not-terribly-observant Jew, Mr. Kristol was a great admirer of St. Thomas More; and I remember reading back in the 80s his lament about the decline in influence of the Catholic Church. His son, I believe, inherited his irenic spirit.)

  16. robtbrown says:


    Well, we know that the people aren’t “buying” what the Church has been “selling” in the West since Vat II. If memory serves, Malcom Muggeridge said it is as if every church had positioned someone outside ready to club anyone who wanted to enter.

  17. wmeyer says: Miss Anita Moore, all men are sinners. Clearly this is true of our elected officials. The market is, in fact, pretty heavily fettered, and I see many vile things offered: abortions, morning-after abortion pills, a wide range of contraceptives, and so on. All approved by the foxes which have been set to guard the hen-house.

    I think you stopped reading my comment after the word “unfettered.” I said “unfettered by Christian principles.” I did not say “unfettered by government regulations.”

  18. tcreek says:

    The single social issue overriding all others is food production and distribution. At no time or place in history has there been such an abundance as produced by the FREE MARKET system in the United States of America. And our country has shared this abundance. Over 45,000 Americans receive food stamps, many others receive free meals and we support the poorest of the poor in other countries. Tampering with this existing free market system will create one thing – starvation for many.

    “Over the past 50 years, the Food for Peace program has sent 106 million metric tons to the hungry of the world, feeding billions of people and saving countless lives. The program depends on the unparalleled productivity of American farmers and the American agricultural system. Without this vast system there would be no Food for Peace program. On average, American generosity provides 60 percent of the world’s food aid, feeding millions of desperately hungry people every year.”

  19. Imrahil says:

    Rev’d dear @Fr Z,

    thanks for that good analysis!

    I agree. Entirely.

  20. wmeyer says:

    Miss Anita Moore, I was probably insufficiently clear in what I was trying to say. If you take my earlier reply, and add to it what I said in response to Priam, you may understand that I consider that Christian principles must be applied by the consumers; they cannot be applied to the sellers. Prohibition made very clear that legislating against peoples’ desires will not succeed, and the War on Drugs has become a much longer and more expensive proof.

    The Church cannot impose strictures on sellers, at least not in a country which does not subscribe to Catholicism as its guiding set of principles.

    The legislature can impose whatever it likes, but achieving the intended result is a different matter.

    Meanwhile, we have many people in the pews who believe that their (unformed or malformed) consciences trump Church teaching. Most visibly, in the form of those politicians who vote always to support abortion “rights” and then present themselves at Mass to receive the Eucharist.

    If we cannot resolve the scandal of CINOs, hoe then are we to resolve the much larger scandal of a secular hedonist society in which we are a minority?

  21. JLCG says:

    Naturally an embryo does not become a man if it is killed by an assassin.
    An acorn does not become an oak if it is prevented from doing that.

  22. Supertradmum says:

    Well, it would be helpful to see yet another pope’s outright condemnation of communism and socialism, the two systems ruining the EU and America. As to the translations, can we assume a Latin one will appear at all, soon? Or, have I just missed it somewhere?

  23. tcreek says:

    My post above noted that 45,000 Americans receive food stamps. I left off 3 zeros. 45,000,000 is the correct figure, 1 in 7 citizens.

  24. TomD says:

    “At the same time, no economic system, free or not, will function in an acceptable way if the people involved don’t share good values. I think they should be religious values and virtues (let’s just say it… Catholic).”

    Freedom is Man’s natural state. Man prospers best, in the fullest sense, when he exercises his God given freedom. But that freedom must be tempered by morality and virtue.

    So an economic system based on the principle of freedom is most in keeping with Man’s nature and purpose. To what extent is it appropriate and/or necessary for government, most certainly a democratic government, to regulate and restrict Man’s freedom in the economic realm?

    Without a society steeped in morality and the virtues, all the regulations in the world will not create a just economic system. Surely the history of the 20th century has proven this. Without a society based on a solid foundation in morality and the virtues, no economic system, however tailored and tinkered by Man, will product a just outcome.

  25. fib09002 says:

    I think we should distinguish Capitalism, which basically leads to society being dominated in every way–economically, politically and so on– by bankers and large transnational corporations without any national loyalties or basic sense of morality (let alone religion) at all, and who are perfectly content with filling this world with filth (porn, etc) and literally killing people just to make a profit, from a truly Christian economy, whose guiding principle would be that all people deserve an honest wage (i.e. a living wage) for doing honest work.

  26. penitentman80 says:

    For the vast majority of people in the United States, the only reason someone might not make “an honest wage” is if they were engaging in dishonest work, or had previously done something dishonest (i.e. broke the laws of a sovereign nation to enter the country secretly).

  27. fib09002 says:


    It seems that you believe that an honest wage is that which is determined by market forces and that only. If so, that would seem to account for the absurdity of your saying that “the only reason someone might not make ‘an honest wage’ is if they were engaging in dishonest work”. Now, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you said that because you hadn’t actually thought through what that really means. Porn stars, NBA players, rappers, doctors who preform abortions, politicians, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, the editors of Entertainment Weekly, tenured professors of gender studies, Miley Cyrus, public sector employees (I mean specifically public school teachers and “social workers” here), etc–all of these people make a living wage, and more. Of course, that’s because they’re engaged in honest work, right? But then you have fast food workers, Walmart workers, waiters and waitresses, etc, who do–let’s be honest–degrading and soon-to-be-automated jobs, who are scheduled to work long and inconvenient hours at those jobs (many had to come in on Thanksgiving, for example), and who receive what can only be considered starvation wages. Is this because they are doing dishonest work, that they cannot get a living wage?

  28. fib09002 says:


    You wrote: “Freedom is Man’s natural state. Man prospers best, in the fullest sense, when he exercises his God given freedom. But that freedom must be tempered by morality and virtue.”

    If you’re posting on this blog, I’m going to assume that you are a Catholic. And if you are a Catholic, you know very well that the above statement just is not true. We are born in bondage to sin (i.e. original sin). Protestants do, of course, tend to exaggerate the consequences of original sin, and we must avoid that; but to say that man’s natural state is to be free, with the idea that man can achieve morality and virtue by himself, would seem to deny the principle of original sin. Society, in fact, is meant to be structured in a way identical to the Church; with everyone, of course, considered and treated as equals in Christ, but still arranged hierarchically, with some–according to their holiness and natural abilities–having real authority over those below them.

  29. Imrahil says:

    Dear @fib09002,

    I don’t think the dear @TomD’s comment was objectionable as to its Catholicity.

    On the other hand, yes, there is needs a hierarchy in society. But in fact holiness and ability have some role here; though the most obvious role of societal hierarchy is simply that of posts of authority, and the authority of whoever happens to occupy them.

    What the Protestants did is called “exaggerate”, but it somewhat seems to me that as far as practical conclusions go (where we normally would put the exaggeration), they don’t go much beyond what an orthodox, if grumpy Catholic could say. There failure is at the principle, and precisely as a principle.

    Thus when @TomD said that man is naturally free as far as original sin goes that poses no problem. Namely, original sin did not touch the essence of nature, which is the really gigantic difference between us and the Protestants: according to them, it destroyed it completely and replaced it with something else. Call this an exaggeration who will, in a sense it is; but it is an entirely different doctrine. In Catholic teaching, the Fall robbed the primordial sanctity (in the sense of connection with God) and brought the burden of concupiscience. But nature was not changed.

    That there is such a thing as acquired virtue the philosophers are very clear about (which then serves as natura supponens gratiam to infused virtue, if I remember that correctly), and in a sense, natural (unfallen) Man can even achieve (natural) morality. He can refrain from sin. Adam could have refrained from sin. Even fallen man is free to not sin in each single act, it has, yes, been foretold with certainty that none will succeed in that completely – but what about incompletely.
    It is different with sanctity, with godliness properly so-called. That is a gift which surpasses human (even immaculate) nature, and hence can no-wise be achieved by natural man.

    Now as to the application… TomD said that freedom must be tempered by morality and virtue. Humanly speaking this is most true. We might also say that any man naturally (yes naturally) wants the good; but he must be told and perhaps (which poses another question) also forced to choose the real good over the pseudo-good.

    So an economic system based on the principle of freedom is most in keeping with Man’s nature and purpose.

    This is certainly true; a freedom, practicalized by subsidiarity.

    To what extent is it appropriate and/or necessary for government, [in this case] most certainly a democratic government, to regulate and restrict Man’s freedom in the economic realm?

    This indeed is the question it is all about; only it is not, as you, dear @TomD perhaps imagine (as I assume from your putting “most certainly” where I have “in this case”), a rhetorical one.

    For morality also wants that evildoers be put into their places and hindered to, by their unpunished existence, destroy the order of law which also is inherent in the nature of the things, and in addition harm the good, etc.

    Also, states may at least for reasons sufficiently grave enact directives about how to do certain businesses (I won’t touch on whether they should, but it is a matter of how grave the reason must be, not of something totally impossible under whatever circumstance – which means there will be discussion). And who disobeys them… well, disobeyed the lawful superior.

    The question is still complicated by the fact that not all orders are lawful orders.

    All in all… it’s a complicated question….

  30. Imrahil says:

    Dear @TomD,

    one thing at any rate I am fairly convinced of: the amount of regulation allowed to the State is totally independent from which sort the State’s constitution has… provided only that he is not usurpatory (and even in that case he might still have some rights, based on “public order” and “lesser evil” principles).

  31. Elizabeth D says:

    I appreciate fib09002, especially the comment at 6:02 pm. I would hope to see the “conservatives” on this blog have a more living concern for living wage opportunities for Americans. Some of us, especially if there is something slightly wrong with us, completely despair of the idea of making a living. And better and more capable people than me work hard and hardly scrape by even with their income supplemented by food stamps etc, and could not afford to start a family.

  32. Joe in Canada says:

    I do believe that the United States is the world’s greatest success story of the possibility of a society to build itself so that everyone can flourish.
    That having been said, I don’t think EG was written particularly with the US in mind. The degree to which capitalism is regulated in the US has little to do with how it is regulated internationally. Large numbers of people – children included – are reduced to economic if not literal servitude around the world, in significant part to make our North American life style possible. Likewise large parts of the world undergo massive ecological degradation – eg in the Amazon so that we can have $1.50 burgers.

  33. Gratias says:

    Our American capitalist system, downgraded as it is, certainly is much better than Argentina’s destructive Peronism.

  34. Priam1184 says:

    @wmeyer A market in a certain sense is, you are correct, sellers interacting with buyers. Like I have said in other comments trade and commerce are part of the life that God made for human beings on earth and are in and of themselves very good thing. And a market is a necessary part of any world where trade and commerce exist. However it is an entirely different situation when the market dominates and everything is bought and sold than where a market is just a part of the sphere of human existence. Communism wants in the end to destroy the market which is impossible because trade and commerce are an integral part of creation and a market is a necessary piece of these aspects of life. Capitalism wants the market to dominate everything which is equally dangerous because it abuses one of God’s gifts and that gift in turn would end up enslaving us.

    @robtbrown: it isn’t a guy holding a club; he’s holding a machine gun.

  35. Nancy D. says:

    It is not “the trickle down effect”, but rather the fact that a government that does not desire to serve God, does not desire to serve The Common Good.

  36. rhetor says:

    Thanks for the illuminating explanation, Father. I suspect that extremists on both the left and the right serve false gods: Government or The Market. Paradoxically, these seemingly opposed deities make the same demand: sacrifice your moral principles to me, and I will take care of everything.

  37. Pingback: Father Z responds to Michael Novak | Foolishness to the world

  38. wmeyer says:

    @Priam, how would the market dominate? Sellers need buyers. If buyers make moral selections, then sellers will cease offering immoral products. We vote with our treasure.

    The difficulty not yet addressed is how to regulate what can be offered. We have allowed the government to do that, and many immoral products are not only offered, but consumed in stunning volume. Precisely how is that superior to leaving the market unregulated?

    A solution which is not functional is no solution at all. Creating laws and bureaus to manage and enforce them is utter folly when the laws are unjust and the regulation ineffective.

  39. wmeyer says:

    I think that, before we attempt to address the notion of “unbridled capitalism”, we might do well to consider the stunningly obvious problem of unbridled consumerism.

    All the reports I have seen suggest that many, perhaps most, American families carry a rather large debt load, much of it on plastic. One site puts the average American credit card debt at more than $15,000. And thanks to Jimmy Carter and his buddies, we have no laws against usury, and the interest paid on these accounts is not unlike that charged by the criminals called loan sharks.

    Why is this debt so high? I believe there are two principle reasons: First, the rampant consumerism which requires little Johnny and Marie to have all the gadgets, and participate in all the extra-curricular activities, and second, the high rates of interest, which make it harder to pay down these accounts.

    I used to be in such a position, but have not been, for several years. To operate in that mode other than when forced into it by dire circumstance is irresponsible, and frankly sinful. We have one debt which is not paid to zero at the end of each month, and that is our mortgage. But we do make extra payments against the principal, as often as possible.

    Much like the avoidance of sin, the avoidance of debt involves saying no to temptation.

  40. TomD says:

    @fib09002: Yes, I am Catholic, but a recent adult initiate into the faith from an unchurched background. I believe that my RCIA preparation was pretty good, but . . . ;)

    I would respond to you in this way: In the beginning, we were created by God free. That was the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. We violated that freedom and sinned by disobeying God.

    So, perhaps I am not expressing this entirely correctly but, our natural state is free. But that freedom, as I stated before, must be tempered by morality and virtue as revealed to us by God. For Man to prosper (and I do not mean primarily economically), he must be free. This is what God intended. But Man must also fully recognize that that freedom has limits, through obedience to God.

    In the economic realm, a centralized governmental system that attempts to excessively “impose” virtue or “right behavior” on Man will ultimately fail. This is especially true in a secular society that refuses to recognize Man’s fallen state and believes that human-devised “systems” can produce justice. They can’t. God gave us the regulations; we can’t devise them from our own imagination, no matter how intelligent we may think we are.

    So, it seems to me, a key question is to what extent is regulation and restriction compatible with Man’s freedom and his fallen state. It IS a complicated question, especially when Man seeks the answers through his own judgment, absent God. Ultimately, no economic system is going to be just without a moral and virtuous populace, especially in a world that denies that it is only through obedience to God that justice will prevail.

    We must, each of us as individuals, freely choose to obey God, not to primarily seek justice through human-devised systems. This does not deny the need for Man to order society on some level, just that the foundation of that ordering must be through God. How we constitute human society, and regulate ourselves given our fallen state, is a – if not the – key question. But denying that God is at the center of that question, will ultimately lead to failure.

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