NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Pope Francis denounces income inequality and greed in new apostolic exhortation

The Vat­i­can today pub­lished the text of His Holi­ness Pope Fran­cis’ first apos­tolic exhor­ta­tion, writ­ten by the Holy Father over the sum­mer, which is Fran­cis’ first major writ­ten work as Pope. It presents Fran­cis’ views on issues of the day, some­what like a polit­i­cal par­ty plat­form, and clocks in at eighty-four pages.

Help­ful­ly, the Vat­i­can has post­ed it online for easy read­ing and trans­lat­ed it into Eng­lish for those of us here in the Unit­ed States, in Cana­da, the Unit­ed King­dom, South Africa, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and oth­er Eng­lish speak­ing coun­tries. (Nat­u­ral­ly, it is also avail­able in oth­er lan­guages, like French and Spanish).

The doc­u­ment, titled Evan­gelii Gaudi­um (which means Joy of the Gospel) is addressed to the Catholic cler­gy and laity. It is a remark­able doc­u­ment, and is like­ly to fur­ther upset neolib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives because it calls for right wing eco­nom­ic doc­trine to be reject­ed. It is already being called a Magna Car­ta for church reform. At 51,000 words, it is a long read, but we’d like to share some the key excerpts with you here, while still encour­ag­ing you to read the whole thing.

We’ll start with an excerpt from the sec­ond chap­ter, titled No to an econ­o­my of exclu­sion. These para­graphs res­onate strong­ly with us.

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. 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 “dis­pos­able” cul­ture which is now spread­ing. It is no longer sim­ply about exploita­tion and oppres­sion, but some­thing new. Exclu­sion ulti­mate­ly has to do with what it means to be a part of the soci­ety in which we live; those exclud­ed are no longer society’s under­side or its fringes or its dis­en­fran­chised – they are no longer even a part of it. The exclud­ed are not the “exploit­ed” but the out­cast, the “left­overs”.

Read­ing this pas­sage remind­ed me of watch­ing Annie Leonard’s The Sto­ry of Stuff, which we post here on The Advo­cate every year on the Fri­day after Thanks­giv­ing. The Sto­ry of Stuff is a forty minute video that explains the incred­i­ble cost and con­se­quences of our throw­away, dis­pos­able cul­ture — the same cul­ture that Pope Fran­cis is dis­cussing here in today’s apos­tolic exhortation.

The Pope goes on to say unequiv­o­cal­ly that right wing trick­le-down eco­nom­ic the­o­ry has been proven in real­i­ty to be noth­ing but a recipe for greater inequality.

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; and in the mean­time all those lives stunt­ed for lack of oppor­tu­ni­ty seem a mere spec­ta­cle; they fail to move us.

These words ought to be chis­eled into the walls of the New York Stock Exchange and the head­quar­ters of big Wall Street banks like JPMor­gan Chase and Wells Far­go. So could these, which imme­di­ate­ly fol­low and decry the “idol­a­try of money”:

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.

Fran­cis adds:

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.

Rarely have we seen such a pow­er­ful, con­cise and thought­ful cri­tique of right wing eco­nom­ic dog­ma. Fran­cis’ word choice is superb (at least in the Eng­lish trans­la­tion!) Note the phrase “dei­fied mar­ket” in the last sen­tence. Fran­cis is observ­ing that our econ­o­my has become ori­ent­ed around the suc­cess of mar­kets con­struct­ed for the ben­e­fit of a wealthy few, par­tic­u­lar­ly the top one per­cent. And that has result­ed in wide­spread income inequal­i­ty and increased eco­nom­ic injustice.

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 of 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”.

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 a return of eco­nom­ics and finance to an eth­i­cal approach which favours human beings.

Mon­ey must serve, not rule. If we start to heed these sage words, we will begin to enjoy a more peace­able world, greater eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty, bet­ter envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, increased edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, and improved healthcare.

Fran­cis says he is pray­ing for polit­i­cal lead­ers to emerge who will take these words to heart, and act on them. From a lat­er pas­sage in the exhortation:

I beg the Lord to grant us more politi­cians who are gen­uine­ly dis­turbed by the state of soci­ety, the peo­ple, the lives of the poor! It is vital that gov­ern­ment lead­ers and finan­cial lead­ers take heed and broad­en their hori­zons, work­ing to ensure that all cit­i­zens have dig­ni­fied work, edu­ca­tion and health­care. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? I am firm­ly con­vinced that open­ness to the tran­scen­dent can bring about a new polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic mind­set which would help to break down the wall of sep­a­ra­tion between the econ­o­my and the com­mon good of society.

I could go on excerpt­ing the exhor­ta­tion — there are so many remark­able pas­sages in it — but I’d urge you to read the whole thing for your­self. It will take time, as it is a long doc­u­ment. But it is wor­thy of study and contemplation.

The exhor­ta­tion does not out­line new stances on social issues like repro­duc­tive rights, or LGBT rights and mar­riage equal­i­ty. Nor does it open the door to a future where women are per­mit­ted and encour­aged to serve as cler­gy. That’s not sur­pris­ing, and pro­gres­sive Catholics should not feel dis­ap­point­ed that Fran­cis has reaf­firmed the teach­ings of his predecessors.

We have become too accus­tomed to instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and for­get that mean­ing­ful, nec­es­sary pro­gres­sive change can take time.

We can and ought to be grate­ful that we final­ly have a pope who thinks long-term and cares deeply about the well-being and hap­pi­ness of humanity.

Fran­cis has not been in charge for even a year yet, but already he is set­ting a good exam­ple. His actions are in har­mo­ny with his words. He is a peo­ple’s pope. He stress­es that he speaks with affec­tion, apart from any polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy, but it is clear that he believes in a nur­tu­rant church and nur­tu­rant pol­i­tics, just as pro­gres­sives all over the world do. What’s more, he speaks as a pro­gres­sive ought to speak, with a hand of friend­ship and wel­com­ing outstretched:

My words are not those of a foe or an oppo­nent. I am inter­est­ed only in help­ing those who are in thrall to an indi­vid­u­al­is­tic, indif­fer­ent and self-cen­tered men­tal­i­ty to be freed from those unwor­thy chains and to attain a way of liv­ing and think­ing which is more humane, noble and fruit­ful, and which will bring dig­ni­ty to their pres­ence on this earth.

We would all do well to reflect on what Fran­cis has to say. What­ev­er your faith tra­di­tion is (or even if you have no faith tra­di­tion at all), the Evan­gelii Gaudi­um is worth your time. If you aren’t able to read it today, carve out time to read it over the Thanks­giv­ing week­end. You’ll be glad you did.

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One Comment

  1. Pope Fran­cis has been a god­send. The Catholic Church is a huge insti­tu­tion and it takes time to change. Fran­cis has start­ed the ball rolling, thank­ful­ly, and that’s some­thing we can be very grate­ful for.

    # by Jonelle Nisbet :: November 30th, 2013 at 9:34 AM
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