Pope Francis made headlines recently with his critical remarks on capitalism and the “economy of exclusion.” It did not take long before pundits accused the Pope of supporting radical ideology. Politicians rushed to enlist him in support of their agenda. (Rush Limbaugh called him a Marxist; President Obama cited him in a policy speech.) What are we to make of this? What exactly did the Pope say, and what should it mean for Catholic political and social discourse?
The Pope’s remarks came in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, a document about how to present the Gospel to the world. At the outset, the Pope made clear that his primary objective is to “invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” According to the Pope, the greatest contemporary obstacle to that encounter is consumerism, “the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”
According to the Pope, the Gospel is primarily about this encounter with Jesus Christ. He saves us from this covetous heart, desolation and anguish: “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.”
The Pope identifies a number of “false gospels” that we must shun. One of these is Gnosticism: “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas.” In other words, our experience of Christ must take us out of ourselves. “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” Salvation is not a purely private affair. “Our redemption has a social dimension,” writes the Pope.
In light of this context, the Pope goes on to identify a number of social realities that cannot fail to elicit the concern and compassion of Christian people. According to Pope Francis, the world economy today has contributed to massive social disruption, “masses of people [who] find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” Notably, Francis identifies the unborn with these masses of poor. “The Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question [abortion],” he writes.
In response to these social realities, it is not enough merely to proclaim the magic of the marketplace, or to assume that economic development for its own sake will necessarily relieve this suffering. And the market itself can deaden us to the needs of the poor: “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.”
When writing the exhortation, Francis anticipated the public reaction we have seen. He does not want to be read as offering specific policy suggestions (he specifically denies this), but rather as calling Christian (and non-Christian) society to a higher goal, to profound reflection on the dignity of the person and the common good. The Pope writes:
If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. 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 and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.
Since the days of Pope Leo XIII, the Magisterium has singled out two errors that can be held about the Church’s approach to social questions. The first is to identify the Church with a specific political program or agenda, to consider the Church useful only insofar as it supports some purely secular conception of human development. The other error is to consider the Church’s role as purely “spiritual,” or otherworldly. As if the Church had nothing to say to concrete, social realities. As if the incarnation of the Son of God were a purely private affair.
Pope Francis warns against both these tendencies. From the first days of his pontificate, he cautioned that “The Church is not an NGO.” Her primary mission is to preach Christ. But at the same time, the Pope urges that “no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.” Pope Francis has in no way departed from the history of magisterial teaching on social questions. Throughout the document, the Pope refers us to the social encyclicals of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. He urges us to study the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church.