By Tom Cushing
A Pope that a Unitarian Can Love, Part Tres: the Economic GospelUploaded: Dec 16, 2013
The first two editions of this trinity examined elements of Pope Francis' EVANGELII GAUDIUM -- the declaration of his papacy's emphases and direction -- looking first at its great themes, and then at the church he envisions leading. This concluding chapter looks at his views of the Church's role in the distinctly secular realm of economic policy and governance. It gives voice to a kind of Liberation Theology, which assigns a central role to the church in not only ameliorating the immediate suffering of the poor, but also acting to improve their lot in society.
Liberation Theology arose in Francis' native Latin America in the 1960s, as part of the awakening of spirit roused by the Second Vatican Council of Pope John 23rd. It was later squelched by both John Paul II and Benedict, especially by the virulently anti-communist Polish Pope who equated its tenets with Marxism. I did not find this reincarnation of the doctrine to be so; rather I would call it distinctly interventionist, at both individual and state levels.
Francis lays the groundwork for Church activism by proclaiming that it needs to participate in the social dialogue, notably as regards world peace and the plight of the poor in society. "Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society…. We know that evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man's concrete life, both personal and social." (142-3)
On the societal level, he warns against "processes of dehumanization [that "run counter to God's plan," especially at this "turning-point in history" -- of technological advances and "new and anonymous kinds of power." He issues a nearly Commandment-level rebuke to "an economy of exclusion and inequality." Exclusion is even worse than exploitation or oppression, he writes, as it robs people of their hope of any betterment to their poor conditions. He calls it the baseline cause of violence in many forms, because such a socio-economic system is unjust at its root.
He rejects trickle-down economics,per se, as the product of a "crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power, and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." As to inequality:
"While the earnings of a minority are growing, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born … and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules." (47-8) Specifically and pointedly, he rejects a contemporary financial system that rules, rather than serves, and speaks of a "deified market" that tends to devour everything which stands in its way.
Francis calls for an end to the abdication of economic ethics by political and business leaders. "Ethics a non-ideological ethics would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order…. Financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future. Money must serve, not rule!" (48-9)
Thus, the Pope calls for regulating markets with an eye to maximizing the common good, which he distinctly does Not define as 'whatever the market decides.' He also makes it clear that his Church intends to bring its conscience to bear on politicians -- including its members, I'm sure -- who appear to forget the importance of exercising their own best ethical instincts. That's a big change, but a far cry from Marxism.
Where he comes closer to a controversial sentiment is in his views of private property and wealth sharing. In a section that discusses elimination of the structural causes of poverty and promotion of the integral development of the poor, Francis calls for solidarity among "those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities that come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good." (149) The imperative of that Common Good, to Francis, consciously outranks any unfettered rights to accumulation for its own sake. Call him a class warrior, but he very clearly believes that good fortune should be shared. And the purpose of commerce is not just to make a pile, but to serve human needs.
Apropos of that sharing, he also speaks to the micro, personal level of humankind's concrete life. Early on, he notes that affluence tends to breed indifference to the plight of others, and distinguishes (mere) pleasure from (meaningful) joy in service. Joy means being "liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves." He also calls on individuals to reject the new idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. And he concludes that "we do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide." (203-4)
The Pope is quite unspecific about the manner in which good fortune might be shared, structural obstacles removed and joy attained. Perhaps that is because life offers so many of them -- at personal, business, and state levels. He appears to be announcing his intention that his Church will be in the forefront at all three levels, trying to develop the loftier attitudes and approaches that will lead to progress against poverty.
This Pope clearly wants to lead a church that is worldly in its focus, humble in its mission of service to humankind, and vibrant in its own development, up to a point. He is clearly forgoing a chance to truly reform its worst failing, and will not realize the progress that would come in his stated purposes if he were to fully integrate women's available contributions and interests (e.g., in contraception, which I neglected to mention in blog 2). Still, I have say that I am heartened by his constancy with what I believe are truly Christ-ian principles, his clarity of purpose and his devotion to leadership by example.
It's a pretty heavenly start.