Pope’s letter, economics and the poor


Pope Francis doesn’t seem to revere the capitalist free market system in the same way some of us do. His November letter on The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium in Latin) contains sharp criticism of what he calls “new idols: …money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
He is convinced that “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”
In reading the full document it’s clear that the pope never did trust that “invisible hand.” But then Adam Smith, inventor of the term, also didn’t trust it in the absolutist way favored by some of today’s free market purists. He understood that a system in which people freely seek their own interest in exchanges with others would generally lead to a common good, but not always. Relationships aren’t always free and equal, so some governing influence is needed to ensure a rough equilibrium in society. Otherwise deep and destabilizing gaps open up between haves and have-nots.
Evangelii Gaudium is not primarily about economic systems. It is aimed at helping Catholics have confidence in their faith; to fully invest our lives in the promise of the Gospel. We learn there that we are known by God as beloved, forgiven and welcomed with Jesus into eternal life. If we put on Jesus, as St. Paul advises, if we become self-giving images of God as he is, we have nothing to fear, including death.
The pope wants us to feel the deep, liberating joy that results from this faith so that we can effectively share it. His references to social justice issues sprinkled through the letter (officially called an Apostolic Exhortation) are there because inequality and injustice frustrate the impulse to share. Relations among people become distorted by “the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest.”
As a result, “The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades….”
Francis has a surprise for many of us who think of charity as separate from duties that we have; duties such as justice in relationships and the paying of taxes. He sees life differently:
“We need to be convinced that charity ‘is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones).’” Francis is quoting from Pope Benedict XVI in the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Then he continues in his own words:
“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans?”
Charity, we sometimes forget, means love. Pope Francis sees it in those terms, bringing politics, the economy and financial affairs under the umbrella of love. If we think about it, what else should be expected from the center of the Church? We are being reminded that our mission as Catholic Christians is to act always like believers in the God who is love – always, including those times when political passion or economic self-interest is tempting us to sin.
We share love or we have nothing that attracts. We are just one more passing noise in the universe.
Frank Wessling

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