"The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes." —Pope Francis to Congress, Sept. 24, 2015
Poverty is linked to some of the most pressing issues of modern time, from climate change to gun violence. Yet America’s version of capitalism, with its longstanding tradition of rugged individualism, aggressive competition, and mass consumption, at times conflicts with the pope’s call to seek out social justice and promote the common good.
Because of this conflict, many Catholics many ask: Can today’s version of capitalism properly address the structural causes of poverty?
In his address to Congress in September, Pope Francis reminded us that every life is sacred. For Catholics, such a declaration goes beyond traditional political, economic, and societal norms. From birth until death, Catholics have a moral and spiritual obligation to look past individual wants and needs, and instead strive to provide for, and serve on behalf of, the common good.
An inequality of material things is, and always will be, a natural occurrence. There will always be those who cannot afford certain commercial items. But what constitutes acceptable living conditions, and which economic sector (private or public) has the greater influence on poverty, is still very much open to discussion. Some believe free market capitalism is picking winners and losers, while others believe government, through regulation and taxes, has taken on such a role.
Pope Francis believes the excesses of capitalism must be tempered by a government that seeks to protect and defend the poor, sick, and marginalized.
Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States also grants government the power to promote what it calls “the general welfare;” a phrase that shares a special bond with the common good.
During his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson spoke of a desire to put aside differences in an effort to “unite in common efforts for the common good.”
In a message to Congress, Theodore Roosevelt declared, “where there is no governmental restraint or supervision, some of the exceptional men use their energies not in ways that are for the common good, but in ways which tell against this common good.”
Roosevelt’s famous “New Nationalism” speech mentions promoting and protecting the general welfare from what he called “unfair money-getting” by “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men.”
Prior to running for president, in a statement which defined the kind of balance and wisdom he strove for as the leader of the free world, Dwight D. Eisenhower said at Columbia University, “To blend, without coercion, the individual good and the common good is the essence of citizenship in a free country.”
A more recent example would be Barack Obama, who said, “…only government can make those investments in common goods that serve the general welfare but are too expensive for any individual or firm to purchase on their own.”
Far from calling for the abolition of capitalism, the pope instead desires structural reform which addresses its most harmful aspects. In Evangelii Gaudium, or ‘Joy of the Gospel,' Pope Francis rightly critiques free market capitalism when he writes:
“…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.”
There’s no arguing capitalism in the United States has brought millions out of poverty and raised the level of productivity to levels other nations could only dream of. Still, when there are an estimated 3.5 million yearly homeless and more than 17 million vacant housing units, something isn’t entirely right with the system. Nor is it acceptable that about $165 billion in food (40 percent of our food supply) is wasted each year while over 15 million children live in food insecure households.
As Pope Francis said in 2013,
"…Many social, political, and economic systems have chosen to exploit the human person" in the workplace, by "not paying a just wage, not offering work, focusing solely on the balance sheets, the company's balance sheets, only looking at how much I can profit. This goes against God!"
Essentially, competition and profit without concern for the dignity of the worker and the family he or she supports create an economy which excludes and kills the poorest among us.
As mentioned before, inequality will always exist — at least in the material sense. But steps can be taken to provide the most basic life giving provisions to the least fortunate among us. This bountiful nation has the material and manpower to fight the worst effects of poverty, yet seems to lack the courage, determination, and direction to take any measurable action due to the cynicism, hate, and greed found in the current political and economic system.
In fairness to the failings of capitalism, I think the pope understands that no economic or political system is perfect. Thus, trying to define the pope’s viewpoints on economic and political matters as decidedly liberal or conservative is a pointless exercise. Furthermore, to cast issues as liberal or conservative would essentially paint life itself as merely black and white. We must guard against, as Pope Francis said to Congress, “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”
All social justice oriented Catholics — the pope included — define their political and economic views through a lifelong struggle to understand and live a moral and spiritual life. The views of a Catholic committed to the common good and social justice are therefore constantly evolving and challenged due to encounter and dialogue with others.
Unbridled capitalism, without concern for the common good and general welfare, results in kind of pain and suffering far too many of our poorest citizens have to experience on a daily basis. Will more elected officials of good will join with Pope Francis on his mission to uplift the poor, sick, and marginalized throughout society?
Let these elected officials, too, not “be afraid to say it: We want change, real change, structural change.”