Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey were tired of watching their kids eat fish sticks and Tater Tots, those ubiquitous yet nutritionless staples of the American school lunch, so in 2006 the two moms from Oakland, Calif., decided to found Revolution Foods “to transform the way America eats by providing access to healthy, affordable meals to schools.” They started out serving 300 healthy lunches a day to students in Oakland; today, they serve more than 200,000 meals daily to students nationwide and employ more than 1,000 people.
The company was listed second on last year’s Inner City 100, an annual ranking of high-achieving, for-profit companies published by Fortune magazine and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to leverage market forces in order to break cyclical patterns of poverty in America’s urban areas. From 1999 to 2012, Inner City 100 firms operated in 146 cities and generated more than 76,000 new jobs and $2 billion in annual sales.
All of this is to say that Pope Francis probably didn’t have the Inner City 100 in mind when he spoke recently about the unjust, even nefarious dimensions of market capitalism. Indeed, the pope pointed out in one interview that “the only specific quote I used [in the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”] was the one regarding the ‘trickle-down theories,’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world” (emphasis added).
I doubt that the pope’s ex post facto qualification will soothe the anxieties of Rush Limbaugh and some of his more dogmatic Republican brethren. Nor should it, really. Pope Francis offers a generally accurate—if trenchant—critique of the perils of capitalism, one that also appears in black and white for all to see in the social doctrine of the church. Those on the secular left, however, should take little comfort in that fact. While the church’s teaching on economics is not popular at conservative policy salons, it is not synonymous with the Democratic Party platform either. Pope Francis has also been critical of Marxism, especially when it takes the form of theology. “The Marxist ideology is wrong,” he said flat-out in December.
So where does that leave us? First, we need to recall that the church’s teaching on economics is a moral teaching; it is not a technical prescription. We believe that human beings have a duty to care for one another, especially for the least among us; this requires social and political structures that promote moral responsibility, equality of opportunity, an equitable distribution of resources and a strong social safety net.
But apart from a thoroughly justifiable suspicion of utterly this-worldly -isms, whether they originate with the left or the right, the church is—if you’ll pardon the expression—largely agnostic when it comes to the technical means of building a more just society. The question, in other words, is simply “what works?” What is the best, just way of building a more just and prosperous world? If it’s more start-up ventures like Revolution Foods, then so be it. If it means a generous government benefit, then so be it. If it’s somehow both, then even better.
If the left feels only affirmed by what the pope has said, then they have missed the point. If the right feels only threatened, then they too have missed the point. “Today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis has said. A brief survey of the 20th century—from London’s degraded East End to the killing fields of Cambodia—reminds us that the left and the right are both capable of creating murderous economies. As with Revolution Foods, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.