Pope Francis, kissing babies and making waves on Twitter. Photographer: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis, kissing babies and making waves on Twitter. Photographer: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

“Inequality is the root of social evil,” Pope Francis wrote in a Twitter post yesterday, with words that thrilled the left worldwide more than anything he had said since denouncing “trickle-down theories” of economics.

We could read the definite article in his latest statement as indicating that the pope believes all social evil has inequality at its root. The price of that reading, though, would be to render the statement absurd. (In an apostolic exhortation, Francis had called inequality the root of “social ills,” which also suggests that reading is mistaken.) The same would be true if we read it as a condemnation of any degree of economic inequality.

How, then, to make sense of the post?

Catholics know to read papal comments, even tweets, in light of traditions of church teaching that are larger than any one statement or even any one pope. The church has long taught that a kind of inequality is both gravely wrong in itself and the cause of other wrongs: the treatment of some people as lesser in worth and dignity than other people. In the church’s view, the social evil of abortion flows precisely from that inequality.

The church has long advanced an economic teaching as well. It rejects both socialism -- considered as the concentration of economic power in the state -- and unregulated markets. It seeks to bring the poor into the circle of productive exchange. The church doesn't propose a specific legislative program to achieve that goal, because it recognizes both the limits of its competence and the persistence of legitimate disagreement among people of good will about these matters.

How might the church’s view of inequality and its view of economics be linked? Perhaps in the idea that we fail to place a sufficiently high priority on fighting poverty because we fail to truly see the poor as the moral equals of the prosperous.

That’s a critique that has real bite for both Catholics and non-Catholics -- left, right and center.

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.