It’s the Economy of Salvation, Stupid

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Some Thoughts on Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium

Daniel Q. Kelley, December 2013

Pope Francis is mad. He’s attacking capitalism. He’s out of his element! He’s a Marxist! No wonder he doesn’t stick to Latin, laws, and loyalty to Rome! He’s a Jesuit, for chrissakes!

Actually, his latest major work, Evangelii Gaudium, isn’t a condemnation of capitalism per se. Francis doesn’t even use the word. But, yes, he does have some passionate words about the personal sins and “anonymous” mechanisms that have created astounding financial inequality and social exclusion throughout the world. He’s mad as hell and he doesn’t want us to take it anymore … or cause it.

This “Apostolic Exhortation” is mainly about spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Don’t preach at people. Talk with them about whatever, listen to them, spend time with them, give them any kind of help they need. Especially poor people. And understand how the age we live in has made us callous not only to them, but to everyone. He calls it “the globalization of indifference.”

Some pundits imply that Francis is a fool not to realize that prevailing economic mechanisms have lifted millions of people out of abject poverty. These bloviators evidently haven’t read the document. He does recognize the increases in human wellbeing (Sec. 52) that have occurred, but he gives them only a nod because of his preoccupation with the much greater opportunities that have been lost due to widespread greed. “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 …[a] lack of real concern for human beings” (Sec. 55). He doesn’t say that money hasn’t trickled down to the poor. What he says is that economic growth alone doesn’t cure economic injustice and social exclusion. “[S]ome 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”(Sec. 54). “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires de­cisions, programmes, mechanisms and process­es specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (Sec. 204).

Greed and faith in the invisible hand have spawned gross inequality. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by these happy few” (Sec. 56). The current worldwide catastrophe “lays bare” this injustice. About time, because in the U.S. it’s been going on for forty years. But let’s not be provincial. In 2011 China surpassed Latin America as the most unequal place on the planet. Is China capitalist? Is Francis anti-capitalist? Not the point. The point is the inequality and injustice. He doesn’t bother to make the case for the connection between the two. He’s impatient about things like that. In other contexts he writes: “[O]ne analyzes and classifies others without opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.” “I fear that these words too may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect.”

The second effect of the globalization of indifference, according to Francis, is “exclusion”. What’s that? Not much analysis and classification on his part, but to him it’s worse than inequality, worse than “oppression”, a term made popular by Marx: “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 [sic], the ‘leftovers’”. “Masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape” (Sec. 53).

How is exclusion something new? Being “without work” in itself is not new, unfortunately. Maybe “escape” is a clue to his thinking. The first trip he made after his election was to Lampedusa, where Africans try to escape to Italy and many drown trying. They have no opportunities in their own countries, and if they survive the boat trip, they’re not welcome in Europe. Capital is more mobile than ever, but labor is not. Goods sold in the US used to be made in America, then Mexico, then Honduras, then China, then China and Bangladesh, then China, Bangladesh and Vietnam, then forget Bangladesh and Honduras, then goodbye China, goodbye Vietnam and good morning (again) Mexico. Workers are hired and fired and more helpless than ever because the hirers and firers are far away. The forces that break them are “anonymous.” It’s just the world system. Take it because you can’t leave it.

Francis said in a recent interview: “The most serious evils that afflict the world today are the joblessness of young people and the loneliness of old people.” It’s shocked Catholics who are OK about old folks, but don’t like Church people who spout off about economic policies. Francis, however, is not proposing policies. He’s talking about culture, our “throw-away culture” in which if you’re not productive or you’re otherwise inconvenient, you get tossed aside. And that should remind us of John Paul’s revulsion at what he called “the culture of death.” Francis is in line with him—maybe this will allay some fears about the Jesuit pope.

“Excluded” may also describe kids who can’t get a good education, people who are forced to depend on welfare for one reason or another, addicts, the imprisoned who are left to fend for themselves on the inside, and the mentally ill who are left to fend for themselves on the outside.

Our age is all about things, not people. There’s the big greed of the super rich and others who run the “free market”, making sure it’s more free for some than for others. And there’s the little greed of the rest of us who’ve bought into the status quo with our consumerism. Curiously enough, although we’re among its victims (e.g., pitiful relative incomes, savings destroyed), each of us is, as Shakespeare said, “a willing bondsman”. Can’t complain about the bread—everyone gets what they deserve in this life—and the circuses have never been better. We’ve become “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” (Sec. 54).

Francis doesn’t think it’s his business to offer concrete solutions. He writes that governments and international organizations have to change the rules of the game, politicians have to wake up and buck up, and we all have to talk less and do more to help people. “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 …..” (Sec. 208). Preachers and theologians use the term “the economy of salvation” to refer to God’s plans, our responses (often lame), and his unending attempts (so to speak) to help us see the wisdom of what he has in mind. Evangelii Gaudium is about that economy.

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