Monday, December 2, 2013

The Pope and the Economy

When I was an academic (way back when) I liked to theorize about capitalism's negative impact on what I called a "capacity to care." Recalling that now, I was accordingly delighted to see some similar sounding language (actually much better language) in the recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in which Pope Francis speaks of "a globalization of indifference" as "the culture of prosperity deadens us."
Actually, as with so many of the Pope's words, the entire paragraph deserves quoting in full:

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 naive 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.

Of course, there is nothing new about popes' pronouncing on economic questions. Popes have been challenging the spirit of capitalism at least since Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891. Pope Francis is hardly here saying something that is unprecedented in comparison with the pronouncements of his predecessors, in particular some of his more recent predecessors. He is, however, expressing himself in his distinctly personal style, making clear the importance he personally attaches to his words. And, very importantly. this latest critique of capitalist economics comes not in some separate encyclical exclusively about social questions but in an exhortation on evangelization.

The post-conciliar Church, it seems to me, has suffered from a certain unfortunate compartmentalization. Whereas, with the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, for example, an emphasis on good liturgy and a concern for social action often went hand-in-hand, in later decades they became, so to speak, separate specializations. Evangelization likewise has somehow come to be seen as its own separate specialization - in an unintended kind of competition with other ecclesial concerns like liturgy, with social justice, etc. What may be one of Pope Francis's distinctive contributions is how he seems determined to hold all these important elements of Catholic life together.

This is a document about evangelization. It is a challenge to be a Church which “goes forth” ... a Church whose doors are open. It is a challenge to be a Church going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity [EG 46]. It seems to me that it is in no way inconsequential that the section I quoted above is part of a larger discussion of economic inequality that follows directly from the Pope's challenge to the evangelizing Church to "go forth." Speaking of where and to whom to go when the Church "goes forth," the Pope takes his inspiration from Luke 14:14 ("blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you") and argues There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. Today and always, “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel”, and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor [EG 48].

In situating questions about economics at the center of Church' evangelizing mission, the Pope righty recognizes that it is not his task to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality. Rather he exhorts all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times” [EG 51]. It is under that evangelical rubric of scrutinizing the signs of the times that the consideration of economics - of poverty and of inequality - arises. It arises when the Church's mission of universal inclusion collides with the economics of exclusion:
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. ... 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”. [EG 53]

One of the particularly regrettable developments in contemporary American religion has been an increased tendency for many of the more religiously-oriented to identify with a type of politics that resonates more with market assumptions and caters to the economically successful. Perhaps the Pope's personal popularity may make it possible for his evangelizing message to break through our current capitalist fog, that seems to have forgotten the priority of society in human existence and the imperative of solidarity in human relationships.

No comments:

Post a Comment