Poverty and Economic Justice
“Blessed are you poor; yours is the kingdom of God.” Our Christian responsibility, as the Gospel and over a century of formal Catholic social teaching make clear, is to share with the needy our love and goods and to establish a just economic and social order in service of the common good.
After World War II, socially conscious government policies and strong unions resulted, through just compensation for labor and safety nets for the unemployed, in economic security for virtually all in the industrial world. But poverty continued or worsened in the widely exploited Third World.
At present, we have disordered U.S. and world economiesglobalization, increased productivity resulting in fewer jobs, reduced worker compensation, lack of work place safety, deregulation of economic activity in the false notion that free markets will automatically bring a just economic order, inadequate environmental restrictions on production, financial institution criminality, and the heavy influence of wealth on mass communications and government. We have an unprecedented concentration of wealth (85 individuals holding half of the world’s wealth), reduced economic security for billions, unjust competition in pursuit of profit, increased unemployment, relatively little reduction in poverty, and a weakening of safety nets. A widespread indifference to the common good is illustrated here by determination of food stamp funding not by need but what politicians arbitrarily consider affordable as against equally arbitrary judgments to grant tax cuts for the wealthy. Inadequately regulated economic activity in an exploding population and consequent carbon pollution are fast making the earth uninhabitable.
The challenge to the United Nations and governments is to create an economy directed, primarily, to meeting human needs and serving the common good, not to creating wealth. That economy must be environmentally sustainable, rolling back the great harm done in the industrial era.
Since the legalization of abortion came to preoccupy the U.S. hierarchy, it has directed little energy to resisting challenges to the social gospel.
First Year in Review
Francis appreciates that the reign of God is not in heaven or occasioned by doctrinal orthodoxy. It is the fulfillment of life. It is peace and harmony on earthall sharing the earth’s plenty, realized through our conversion, healing, reconciliation, and care for our neighbors, which includes notice of the suffering poor, unemployed, lonely, and helpless, and showing them respect and compassion. Francis has reckoned the signs of the times in identifying an essentially unjust economic system, one of greed and structural sin that causes poverty and economic insecurity and creates a consumer culture alien to “a dignified and fulfilled life.” He calls for reform, as did the 2011 Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice statement on the global economy in recognizing the need for “a new era of sustainable global economic activity grounded in responsibility.” This requires a wide consultation toward establishment of a world political authority.
The people of God look to Francis to continue the realization of Vatican II reform of the Church—reorientation to Gospel service and care in meeting the challenges of the time. Evangelii Gaudium’s withering critique of present day runaway capitalism and his insistence on serving the poor, coupled with his call for collegiality and wide participation in governance, are laying the foundation for the Church providing leadership in overcoming poverty and refocusing the economy. This requires urgent attention to redressing the failed stewardship of Creation before the looming point of irreversible harm: 2017. A promised early encyclical on the environment signals that Francis has priorities straight.
But the present existential crisis may be calling Francis to more—to enlist the 1.2 billion faithful, including bishops (most inexperienced in answering such a call to service), myriad church institutions, and the billions more of good will—as no religious leader has before, certainly in modern historyin a reconstruction of the social order that repairs the harm the brief industrial/capitalist era has done Earth and that places service of the common good at the center of work and the economy. Perhaps Francis’ role is limited to cutting through the failed politics and ill-serving ideologies of our time to call the world’s billions facing reality. Who is likelier to be heard by governments and corporate globalization that trade and greed cannot continue to trump saving the planet and its seven million inhabitants? Given the urgency of these crises, perhaps his role is larger, to gather leaders of religions and environmental scientists (redressing the Galileo embarrassment) to prepare a demand of political leaders to act now.
Important Quotes from Pope Francis
“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.” Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) #53
“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.” Evangeliii Gaudium #55
“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. . . . 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.” Evangelii Gaudium #56
“When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.” Evangelii Gaudium #59
An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. . . . If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics”, the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 239-240). Evangelii Gaudium #183.
We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people, but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity [John XXIII, Mater et Magister] This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. Evangelii Gaudium #192
“Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments.” Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, #207
It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others. Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all. Evangelii Gaudium #210
Dennis Coday, “The Pope vs. Capitalism: Will Francis’ radical economic vision make a difference?” In These Times, February, 2013
John Nichols, “The Pope Versus Unfettered Capitalism,” Reuters, November 30, 2013
Leonardo Boff, “Now, Revolution means activating the emergency brake,” Earthcharter Commission
John Hooper, “Pope Francis Denounces Uncaring Capitalism on Easter,” Guardian, April 1, 2013. [Reports on 2013 Urbi et Orbi address]
Books and Documents
Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis (2013)
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004)
Charles E. Curran, Catholic Social Teaching: 1891-Present (2002)
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority (2011)
Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012)
Start a Discussion
Has the Church met its responsibility to educate Catholics in its social teaching? If not, why not?
What explains the wide indifference of Americans to poverty here and elsewhere?
Consider how differently Francis, U.S. bishops, and U.S. politicians and pundits view poverty.
Is the mass media’s exclusion of criticism of capitalism a major obstacle to Americans hearing Francis’s criticism?
With only three years to prevent irreversible carbon emissions damage, why is there no wide alarm here?
Are you hopeful that Francis can make a difference in creating a responsible economy? Why or why not?
Work to replace politicians beholden to finance and corporate power and dismissive of the common good.
Assist in or start a food pantry.
Work to restore the safety net (food stamps, low cost housing, health care for all)
Study Catholic social teaching.
Join the Occupy Movement.
Write letters to the editor and talk to your neighbors.