In November Pope Francis published Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). He characterized the paper as not a comprehensive document, but rather a simple sharing of his pastoral heart for the mission of the Church. In the midst of this exhortation he speaks of poverty and economic oppression of the poor.
The release of the document was widely covered and some of its content considered controversial. In this post I want to call attention to paragraphs 53-58, the parts that sparked the controversy:
No to an economy of exclusion
53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless [emphasis mine]. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading … .”
54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
No to the new idolatry of money
55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, 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, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
No to a financial system which rules rather than serves
57. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.
58. A 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, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.
Pope Francis clearly has a heart for the poor. His paper is a cry for justice. Some people have agreed with Francis. Some Catholics are in general agreement—this is their Pope, after all—but they spin his words to soften their harshness. Others, like radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh have accused the Pope of being a communist.
So which is it? Is the Pope a communist? Or does he offer a fair critique of capitalism? The answer depends on what is meant by the term “capitalism.”
For the sake of our discussion we can refer to two meta-narratives: the ancient Judeo-Christian worldview and the modern Atheistic-Materialistic world view. The former understands that the universe is both an open system and a moral system. The latter assumes that because there is no God, the universe is a closed system and a-moral.
The grid below depicts four economic models, one for each quadrant. Note the vertical axis measuring morality. The top half acknowledges the moral dimension of the universe. The bottom half regards the universe as amoral.
The horizontal axis measures “openness.” A position left of the line sees the universe as open (to God’s intervention), on the right as closed, the universe is a machine.
- Amoral – Closed (communism) – This is the system that has collapsed before our eyes. It collapsed because its atheistic metaphysical capital (no God, therefore the system is closed and there is no moral order) produced a system that destroyed the human spirit and failed to create wealth.
- Amoral – Open (Consumer Capitalism/Hedonistic Capitalism) – This is what Pope Francis is critiquing and what many in the West are defending. It lives off the memory of Judeo-Christian theism’s open universe (wealth can be created) yet at the same time denies that the universe is moral. Thus there is no moral responsibility in the gain or the use of wealth.
- Moral – Closed (Socialism) – Evangelii Gaudium may not be Francis’ final word on the subject. Nevertheless, he has articulated the upper right position of the quadrant. The universe is moral, not amoral. Thus man is responsible in how he gains and uses wealth, how he treats the “least of these.” Yet Francis’ exhortation builds on the assumption that the universe is closed; wealth is fixed and can only be redistributed between the rich and the poor. This view is inconsistent with the Bible.
- Moral – Open (Oikonomia) – The upper left position represents the view articulated in the Scriptures. The universe is both moral and open. Wealth is created, but God places moral bounds on how it is created and what is done with it. The Greek word oikonomia expresses this Biblical concept of the “stewardship of the house.” Underdeveloped countries seeking economic and civil progress should look here.
It is helpful to read Pope Francis’ paper with this framework in view. But there is another important consideration that sheds light on his comments. Stay tuned!