WASHINGTON – “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.”
That passage is not from some Occupy Wall Street manifesto. It was written by Pope Francis in a stunning new treatise on the Catholic Church and its role in society – and it is a powerful reminder that however tiresome the political trench warfare in Washington may be, we have a duty to fight on.
The full implementation of Obamacare matters. Raising the minimum wage matters. Reforming a financial system “which rules rather than serves,” Francis noted, matters. Hearing the anguished voices of those left hopeless by poverty matters; answering their pleas with education, health care and employment matters even more.
Francis, the first Jesuit and first non-European in the modern era to be named pope, clearly intends to make a real difference in the world – too much of a difference, it appears, for some conservatives: Sarah Palin, a born-again Christian who attends a nondenominational church, said recently that Francis’ open-arms attitude on social issues “has taken me aback.” Would that a few more words might take her all the way aback to the obscurity from which she came.
Francis’ remarks on economics and poverty came in a 50,000-word Apostolic Exhortation, released Tuesday, that gives the clearest vision to date of how he sees the church and how he intends to reshape it. In its boldness, the statement suggests that just as John Paul II played a political role in the fall of communism, so might Francis try to help shape events by obliging the faithful to recognize, and resist, a growing pattern of inequality throughout the world.
“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed,” Francis wrote.
“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.”
Francis explicitly calls for “financial reform,” though he wisely does not lay out a policy agenda. But in a passage likely to make libertarians want to hide amid the dense thickets of Ayn Rand’s prose, where no light can penetrate, Francis writes that “the private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.”
The basic positions Francis takes on economic and social justice are not new; all recent popes have expressed a similar critique of modern capitalist society, including John Paul II, whose views on poverty and the need for community are often conveniently overlooked by those who would paint him as Ronald Reagan in robes.
But no recent pope has been so forceful in denouncing the “idolatry of money” and making the inexorable rise of inequality one of the church’s central concerns. Francis intends his message to be heard. I hope leaders everywhere, and especially in Washington, are listening.
Jesus commanded his apostles to give to the poor. Yet many elected officials who claim to follow Jesus’ teachings are determined to keep the poor from receiving health care, food assistance, housing subsidies and a host of other benefits. Inequality is celebrated as a virtue. Life, we are told with a shrug, is sometimes unfair.
But for Christians, Francis reminds us, life is supposed to be as fair and compassionate as we can make it. Money is a false idol, a golden calf. Our sacred responsibility is to one another.
Amen, Your Holiness. Amen.
Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at email@example.com.