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.
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.