Has the pope subtly endorsed the new book of a leftist French economist on Twitter? This is the question Slate, the Daily Beast, and the Huffington Post breathlessly asked when @Pontifex once again took to social media yesterday:
It's totally possible that Francis is an avid student of economics and has diligently picked up a copy of Thomas Piketty's new book about 21st-century capitalism—I would never venture to speculate on Papal reading lists. But it doesn't seem very likely that the pope is trying to weigh on the somewhat-rarefied debate sparked by this book. This is familiar territory for the pope; throughout his time as the bishop of Rome, he has explored the moral implications of economic inequality. See, for example, these words from his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which was published in November (emphasis added):
As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
But that's not all. @Pontifex has been tweeting on similar themes for months, basically since Francis took over the papacy.
Not to belabor the point, but let us also not forget similar messages from the original head of the Christianity communications team:
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
The remarkable thing about Francis is not that he's fundamentally changing the theology of the Church, nor that he's carving out a space for the pope as a heavyweight in the economics public sphere. It's that he's consistently able to match the themes that animate his spirituality and faith with issues that people around the world are thinking about, such as economic justice, income disparities, and poverty. Nearly 13,000 people retweeted his statement about inequality and social evil—clearly, this idea resonates.
If Francis seems radical, it's because he has a remarkable PR-savvy, winning the obsessive attention of bloggers and journalists, earning the retweets of the masses, and charming economists and his flock in one fell tweet.