During his July trip to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay, some of the poorest countries in Latin America, Pope Francis has voiced the anguish and concerns of millions of people who are struggling to rise out of severe poverty and marginalisation, yet who are “exploited like slaves”.
Speaking to a crowd of two million people in Santa Cruz on 9 July, Francis attacked a mentality that “has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are ‘unproductive’, unsuitable, or unworthy, since clearly those people don’t ‘add up’”.
It is a world Francis knows well from his own extensive experience in Argentina, as well as from his role as one of the key figures coordinating the ten-yearly meeting of the bishops of Latin America at Aparecida in Brazil in 2007. Not only did he help Pope Benedict prepare his speeches for that conference, but as then Cardinal Bergoglio Francis supervised the writing of the 160-page final document, reaffirming the role of the Church in confronting poverty and injustice as essential parts of its mission. This document is a forerunner for Pope Francis’s major statements and policies, including the new encyclical Laudato Si’: on care for our common home.
A high point of his visit to Bolivia was his hour-long speech to the two thousand delegates to the Second World meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz on 9 July, when he demanded “real change, structural change” to reform ‘intolerable’ conditions for farm-workers, labourers, communities, and the earth itself. He warned that time “seems to be running out” to save the planet from “perhaps irreversible harm” according to the scientific consensus. “Do we not realise that something is wrong in a world in which there are so many farm-workers without land, so many families without a home, so many labourers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?”
He condemned the “unfettered pursuit of money” as “the dung of the devil”. When “capital becomes an idol” and “greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system”, they ruin society and put “at risk our common home”.
Francis said he had no “recipe” for a social program or a monopoly on truth, but everyone, governments, popular movements, and other social forces had to find a way forward together.
First, he insisted on the moral principle that the economy be at the service of peoples, not people at the service of money. “Let us say NO to an economy of exclusion and inequality, in which money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”
It was not enough to offer a “decent sustenance”, but people need rights to land, lodging and labour, he said, along with access to education, health care, technologies, art and cultural activities, sports and recreation. “A just economy must create the conditions for everyone to be able to enjoy a childhood without want, to develop their talents when young, to work with full rights”, and enjoy a dignified retirement. He insisted this was not utopian thinking, but possible and ‘an extremely realistic prospect”.
“Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.” He urged the popular movements to strive for “the common good to be achieved in a full and participatory democracy”.
Secondly, he called for peace and justice internationally, and attacked what he called the “new colonialism”. “At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” He criticised monopolistic media which “impose alienating forms of consumerism” as “ideological colonialism”.
To a roar of approval from the crowd, Francis also said that “many sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” He called on Catholics to beg forgiveness for these past crimes, and to commit themselves to supporting the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Latin America.
Thirdly, he lamented that “Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste, and harmed with impunity.” “Cowardice in defending” our common home “is a grave sin.” He said it cannot be allowed for certain global interests “to take over, to dominate states and international organisations, and to continue destroying creation.” “I ask you, in the name of God, to defend Mother Earth.”
Many commentators have been critical of Pope Francis for these views, and the question is how will he manage when he arrives in New York to address the US Congress on 24 September and the United Nations General Assembly? On the flight back from Latin America, Francis said he would study what his critics had been saying to see what he could learn.
He will certainly not resile from his call for global responsibility to address the threat of ‘catastrophic’ global warming, as well as urging a revolution of conscience about our moral obligations to the millions of impoverished and excluded people. He will not reject capitalism in principle, since he knows there are many forms of capitalism, some with strong social and communitarian features.
Nor is the Pope opposed to a type of economic growth needed to lift people out of hunger and poverty, as long as this is done equitably, encourages modest lifestyles and does not damage the environment for future generations.
But he is strongly opposed to neoliberal versions of capitalism, the dominance of financial capital, and the belief that free markets of themselves will resolve most problems of distribution and poverty.
No one familiar with Catholic social teaching, going back to Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical On the Condition of the Working Class (Rerum Novarum) of 1891, should be surprised at this. The Church has long taught that the earth is given by God for everyone; the right to private property is not absolute but conditional upon benefiting the common good, by maintaining productivity in goods and services for the benefit of all. Since Leo, the Church has consistently urged that property be distributed as widely as possible, so that everyone has a share sufficient to provide for family and for security against sickness and old age.
Neoliberal ideology, on the other hand, exalts the rights of wealthy individuals over and against the common good, and propagates the extreme inequality which has left millions destitute. Francis is calling for worldwide resistance against this ideology, and for reforms to economic systems and business practice to ensure equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. He will undoubtedly appeal for business leaders and governments to help refashion the global economy so that everyone has a place at the table. He is highlighting the moral imperative to build a just global economy, an economy with a conscience.
Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who lectures in social ethics at Yarra Theological Union within Melbourne’s University of Divinity. He is one of the founders of the ecumenical advocacy network, Social Policy Connections.