A society in which the praise of greed is invited is on the road to alienation
Evangelii gaudium is a declaration of spiritual government, a document full of positive dynamism and encouragement to bear witness to the Gospel. Secular media have also welcomed the text very attentively, making reference especially to the socio-ethical aspects. The world debate over these affirmations of the Holy Father continues to be intense.
“Such an economy kills.” With this brief phrase, Pope Francis brought about a clamor. And in fact, it is not as often tends to be asserted: Roma locuta, causa finita est. No, exactly the opposite. Pope Francis, with this affirmation, has kickstarted an extensive debate. And how important they are today, precisely these world debates on paths for a common future. Without an orientation toward our common global responsibility, not even political work in favor of the common good of the world can progress. The global climate conference of Warsaw and the research of Bali for a new global agreement from the World Trade Organization demonstrate this. For as difficult as it might be, we have to find paths that lead to basic political conditions oriented to the good of the peoples, in particular for the poorest.
Precisely in the era of globalization, the Catholic Church, which is present and works in the entire world, has a special task. It can contribute to starting debates on the future of the world, and accompanying them. With its arguments and points of view, it must participate in public arenas, but it cannot retreat for fear of the whipping wind of criticism and opposition to a special religious world, so to speak. It is in this line that the “interference” of Pope Francis, with the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, is heard throughout the world.
Even if the Pope is referring first and foremost to the Church and its action, there are also reactions in all parts of society. The way in which the Church sees the world and wishes to transform it does not find only approval, but also criticism. That’s fine. Christianity is, in fact, a public issue. The Gospel must be announced to all of creation. For this, politics, the economy, and culture are part of the evangelizing mission of the Church. Some feel annoyed and upset. They would like to limit religion to the issue of the salvation of the soul and consider faith and the Church merely vestiges of a time that in reality should have been overcome by enlightenment and progress. Certainly they will not be offended if the Church and the Pope cannot and do not want to agree with that opinion. And precisely for this it is good that a message from the Pope so broad, shrewd and engaging might find enthusiastic approval, but also open criticism.
Most of all, the affirmations on the economy have characterized the debate of the last weeks. At the center of the debate is the accusation that the Church, in the end, does not understand capitalism, which in the end has made the world better. It despises the rich and in substance does not contribute to the improvement of the life conditions of the poor. For social problems it has only one response: caritas. Is it this that Pope Francis proposes in his Exhortation? Is this truly the red line that begins with the Gospel and passes through the announcement of the Church up to Catholic social teaching? I am unable to understand how a similar affirmation can stand up. But let us proceed with order.
The debate on the crisis of capitalism was not born because of papal pronouncements, but because, as of the 1990s, we have experienced an ever sharper development towards a financial capitalism, which has brought a catastrophic crisis. Economists also have deplored the new capitalism "of gambling" "Such an economy kills," says the Pope. Yes, this capitalism destroys human lives and harms the common good. After a phase of unrestrained self-awareness of such an accelerated capitalism, for which also the concept of social market economics was already a socialist aberration – all of this supported by the mainstream of economists – the crisis hit, which I think, however, still has not brought about a truly new orientation. I mean to say: capitalism and market economies are not the same thing. The very word capitalism is misleading, just as are all "isms," which try to be able to define the whole of life from a particular point. What vision of the economy and of society is that which takes capital as its starting point, and renders acting persons marginal conditions, or factors of cost? Whoever reduces economic action to capitalism not only has chosen the morally wrong starting point, but is also wrong in the long term from the economic point of view.
But let us return to Pope Francis. The Pope does not want to write a social encyclical, it is not an economic treatise: he is driven by evangelization. He is interested in announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ, which must have effects on the entire life of persons. In his Exhortation, he recalls the great tradition of Catholic social teaching. And he specifies: "neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems." Francis inserts himself fully in the tradition of his predecessors, even if his style is more similar to a prophetic exhortation, to an encouragement to think and to act in a new world. This exhortation from the Pope is directed to the inside and to the outside, and in both directions it is upsetting and full of consequences. To the inside, namely the Church, he explains clearly that evangelization cannot mean only presenting to people the contents of the faith of the catechism and administering the sacraments to them; rather, finding also a new way of living, a new community and a new conception of the future of all men. The Gospel isn't - as some deem and desire - a continuation of religion with other means. A complete evangelization is needed, which includes culture, society, politics and economy. What this means for the Church in a modern, pluralistic, free and open society is not yet well understood and much less put into practice.
And the Pope's exhortation to the outside, namely the world, collides with restless reactions. In fact, with an integral approach, individual interests and differentiation are always disturbed. Self-sufficient, partial systems, such as economics or politics, defend themselves from external interference. In fact, we are naturally accustomed to the differentiation of areas of life that sociologists describe for the modern world. And yet we hear: if we want to be a collectivity, a people, a community of peoples on this planet, then we cannot start from our own interests and separate, differentiated areas of life, but we must dare to look at the whole. Moreover, in this way it becomes visible that differentiation is not so important, because in the modern era a new comprehensive vision has developed, under the table: the economization of all areas of life. It is precisely this which the Pope justly criticizes. And lastly, economization hasn’t meant and doesn’t mean anything more than rendering the rhythm of society dependent on the interests of the exploitation of capital, and this at a global level. Or, in substance, rendering capitalism the overall global parameter, and this is on the background of a factious ideology, which intends progress as a process of evolution of that capitalism, to which men, their cultures and their lifestyles must adapt. Capitalism, in substance, is considered as a natural event, and it is the task of men and of politics to adapt. The creation of markets, political correction of the results of the market, regulation and the ordering of capital markets are all things that seem annoying or as a necessary evil.
Still, to think that pure markets exist in some places, that they bring about good through free competition is merely an ideology. Capitalism should not become the model for society because – to say it in an exasperated way – it doesn’t take into account individual destinies, of the weak and of the poor. This is what the Pope criticizes. Exactly because for us the Christian image of man begins from liberty and responsibility, we cannot give space to such ideas. It has nothing to do with refusing the market economy, which is necessary and sensible, but it has to serve man. This is what the texts of the social teaching of the Church talk about; this is the spiritual basis of the social market economy, characterized from the ordo-liberalism, which in turn was inspired by Christian impulses.
But in the world economic debate, these ideas have never developed a real role. That markets are products of civilization, management tasks, that the economy must serve the common good, that material basis are presumptions, but cannot indicate the objective of human coexistance: all of these are arguments of debate which are necessary, important and which help advance precisely today. If the new culture of the world would be represented of a false capitalism, is there no wonder that the Pope is criticized? The cautionary exhortation of the Pope is compatible with the goal of developing a comprehensive social policy of a global order for the economy, oriented towards the conviction that every man is always in need of a new opportunity, and that he obtains it.
But where are the protagonists for such a program? The agreement of Bali, after long years of confrontation, seems to put the right accents to ensure globally a lobby in favor of the poorest. But where are the political parties, especially those that define themselves as starting from the Christian image of man, when it comes to doing it properly, and of introducing him in the debate at a global level? Where are Christians, men and women, who engage in the field of politics, economy and society? It is true: criticizing capitalism is not a solution. We need programs that put the market, the company and the state in a new relationship with each other, and all of this at a global level. This is what, for example, Benedict XVI asked for.
No, the Church does not despise the rich, as several commentators have written. But it reminds us that material goods are only means to an end and cannot represent the sense of life. A society in which the praise of greed is invited is on the road to alienation and divides persons.
Fundamentally, democracy and the market economy have been born on the soil of Christianity, and are not necessarily contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. But ancient demons reappear in their aberrations in the direction of primitive capitalism. Yes, it is true that debates on the ideals of poverty and on options for the poor accompany the history of the Church. But it is not true that the Pope, in defending this option, wants to leave the poor poorer; indeed he exhorts that they not be excluded; to create a society of inclusion and participation; and to combat poverty in a way not only charitable, but also structural.
Because of this, the position of the Church should be next to the poor, because only starting from them and with them can we look at the whole of society, economy and politics; otherwise we lose sight of what is a priority. And it is this what interests the Pope, also in the challenge of evangelization. At the forefront, it is not about charitable efforts in favor of the poor, but about evangelization, about involvement of the poor, who live physically and/or existentially in the peripheries. They are not objects of our assistance, but they need to find a place in the Church and in society. If we do not try to see through the eyes of the poor we do not see the world in a correct way. Without this, we see an incomplete picture of reality. This is what the Pope notes, in continuity with the Gospel.
The call to think beyond capitalism is not a struggle against the market economy or a renunciation of any economic reason, but, precisely before the real crisis of capitalism, it is an important and necessary intervention of the Pope, an invitation to reorder priorities and to see the world as a commitment of construction, which should be assumed freely and responsibly. The future is not capitalism, but a world community, which leaves always more space to the model of a responsible freedom and that does not accept that peoples, groups and individuals are excluded and marginalized. Is it really something so wrong and out of this world?
Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Jan. 10 issue of L'Ossveratore Romano and has been translated from Italian.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.