A simple “letter” can cement a tradition, forge alliances, defend the voiceless. Indeed, Catholic Social Teaching began with one. James Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore, hand-delivered a letter to Pope Leo XIII in 1887, protesting the Archbishop of Quebec’s earlier condemnation of the newly formed Knights of Labor. In that letter, Gibbons positions himself and the Church as defenders of the working classes, writing that presenting the Church as “the friend of the powerful rich and the enemy of the helpless poor” would not only harm its image. It would be a reversal of its “whole history.” He continued, “The one body in the world which had been the protector of the poor and the weak for nearly 1800 years, could not possibly desert these same classes in their hour of need.” Several years later, in “On the Condition of the Working Classes” (Rerum Novarum), Pope Leo XIII corrected this “reversal” to establish “modern Catholic social thought” in line with the Christian Tradition as a voice of and for the poor. He defended labor unions and offered ethical critiques of both capitalist and Marxist political economies.
More recently, in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, November 24, 2013), Pope Francis presents a similar clear image of his concern about the modern world: “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?” Francis continues his challenge, noting that “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. . . . There is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”
Francis immerses himself in the two thousand year history of the Church, from the Patristic era through the medieval theologians to contemporary social theologians and papal documents, by remaining steadfast in his defense of the many who are working class, poor, and extremely poor (making less that $2 a day): “we have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them.” It sounds as though he re-read Cardinal Gibbons’s 1887 letter about the nature of the Church and its option for the poor; he insists on rejecting any reversal.
Francis makes a point in Evangelii Gaudium to root his exhortations in the words and deeds of his predecessors, namely Paul VI (see Populorum Progressio), John Paul II (see Laborem Exercens), and Benedict XVI (see Deus Caritas Est) to point to the Church’s long and continuing commitment to the poor and workers. Francis is not making any new “news” in this Apostolic Exhortation. Rather he reminds us that the Church commits itself to work for an economy and society built on the values of truth, freedom, justice, and love, and the principles of human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity (see Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church). Francis humbly invites all others who share a concern for justice and peace to work with him to overcome new idols that strangle peoples and communities in structural poverty and inequality.
In this ethical analysis of the current political economy, Francis directly connects the commandment “thou shall not kill” to “an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” This connection between the defense of life and a just economic ethics reveals two prisms that he and the Church’s Tradition employ in critique of systems or structures: namely the focus on the dignity of the human person and the positive role of the State in securing the common good. Francis’s focus on the human person prompts this comment about the nature of the current capitalistic, hyper-individualized political economy:
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. 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 part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’
This exclusion must end.
He minces no words, either, in his critique of current political and economic models:
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 naïve 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.
Francis rejects a “spirituality of well-being” and a “theology of prosperity” that detaches persons and communities from their responsibilities to care for each other and defend human life and provide for the common good. He highlights his fear: that we have created again new idols with our unquestioned ideology of the primacy of money over the human person. He notes with conviction and a heightened acclamation point: “money must serve, not rule!” This new idol worship leads to a “socioeconomic system” of exclusion that “is unjust at its root.” It is wrong. The Church will stand by those who are excluded through its constant teachings and institutional actions. Workers and the poor must be defended. The alliance between the Church and those who are excluded continues.
Francis’s critique of postindustrial capitalism shakes all of us to our own core. We are made uncomfortable by being reminded that oftentimes we have not sufficiently promoted the rights of workers to organize, bargain, and secure a living wage for themselves and their families, even as a recent report notes that “the 10 job categories expected to add the most jobs during the current decade boasted a collective median wage of $32,386 in 2010, roughly $15 per hour and far below the United States median of $51,892 at the time. Seven of the 10 categories pay below this average.” We are oftentimes paralyzed by the global reality that almost half the world, nearly three billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day. Francis’s “letter” calls us to break out of intellectual and organizational perspectives that define these realities as the workings of the “laws of nature.” We must shake off our complicity and organize a just reality at home and around the world.
These choices require us to make a reversal. Poverty, inequality, and injustice are not “natural.” We can change course. Economic, political, and societal arrangements are human, collective choices. Francis calls us to re-imagine a local and global community based in an ethics that prioritizes the person and the common good. We need to keep workers and those without work — and particularly those without any sure way out of poverty — front and center in our common imagination and communal priorities. We need to see the recent cuts to food stamps and extended unemployment assistance as choices that require a reversal in heart and policy. Individually and collectively, we need to make different choices, to value labor over capital, persons over things.
Francis is calling for a wider struggle in the defense of the poor and working classes. He writes: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” The Church “always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.” Francis’s personal and corporate witness attests to that ongoing commitment. In this “letter,” he welcomes everyone to the table of struggle, to work together to create a world of mercy, love, and peace. Francis invites us to forge alliances that promote and empower those who have been “excluded.” The table is abundantly arrayed. Join in.
Brian R. Corbin is Director of Social Action for the Diocese of Youngstown and former Chairperson of the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.