The Global South Goes to the Vatican

06-places-lifetime-traveler-vatican_32769_990x742I just finished reading Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation, which has been getting a lot of attention in the news, and my head is swimming.  It’s an extraordinary text, and one that is sure to be quoted far and wide.  Make no mistake: it is a Catholic document.  Much of it is religious in nature, drawing on many other religious documents.  This is perhaps unavoidable, both because its primary aim is apostolic, as its title suggests, and because it needs to demonstrate how its main message is inextricably an extension of Catholic teaching.  It also affirms past Papal pronouncements, including the need to keep the priesthood all male and the insistence on the sacramental nature of marriage.

If we acknowledge and put aside these caveats for the moment, what we are left with is a radical political document.  What it does, and does very well, is insist on the need for new priorities in church thinking and evangelicalism.  So while it says to its readers, “go spread the message,” the message itself is profoundly different in emphasis from what his immediate predecessors professed.

It begins immediately by signaling its intent to emphasize one theme: “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.”

The rest of Chapter One rehearses familiar Catholic ideas about the importance of missionary work and the centrality of the Gospel, among other topics specifically related to the practice of religion.  But then Chapter Two turns explicitly to the present and the crisis Pope Francis believes defines our shared moment on Earth.  What follows is a relentless and explicit critique of the global elite’s faith in the market, and the remaking of all social relationships to its service.  There’s no way I can avoid using the word here.  What Pope Francis offers is a critique of neoliberalism:

“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

While I’ve been reading many scholarly and journalistic accounts of the ways in which our societies have been remade by such thinking over the past several decades, this is easily one of the most succinct and to the point accounts I’ve encountered.

What’s even more extraordinary is the political remedy Francis demands:

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual.”

We can hear at the tail-end of this paragraph the ways in which Francis remains guided by the fact that he is, after all, the Pope.  Christianity is for him the supreme guide for values that the current world of secular striving is constantly at risk of giving up, to the peril of everyone’s very physical existence.  But what’s just as important for us to pick out in this passage is the willingness to reject completely the capitalist belief that what is most important is the protection of private property.  As Francis insists, private property is only a good so long as it enables one to return  to the commons a greater share of wealth than one has taken out.  When private property no longer serves this primary function, the rights associated with it must be superseded by “the social function.”

Just in case we don’t get his message, Francis goes on,

“We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity.’ This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”

In short, Francis says the aim of care for the poor is not charity.  It is a “just wage.”  This is a call for a wholesale redistribution of wealth.  This is a demand that the wealthy give up their incredibly disproportionate concentration of wealth so that more people can share in its bounty.

Francis wants to be understood as saying exactly this, so he repeats and clarifies himself moments later:

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality,no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

Spoken by anyone else, these words would have instantly attracted denunciation as a provocation to class warfare.  It’s not yet clear what kind of response Francis as the Pope will attract.  What is clear is that Francis has sent a sharp rebuke to a lot of entrenched thinking in elite policy and business circles.  For instance, what would US Representative Paul Ryan, who also happens to be a Catholic as well as a former VP candidate, make of these words?  Don’t these words cut sharply and painfully against every belief Ryan has ever claimed in public speech?

Finally, what I find especially amazing is that Francis moves from a diagnosis of the current ills facing the planet (namely too much inequality, a deification of the market, and the chasing after transient pleasures, all of which eventually endangers the environment) and a critique of an economic system that has produced such ills, to pretty well thought out guidelines for how to reform our thinking so that we do not fall prey to the ideologies of the present.

First, he says, we need to stop thinking about space and think about time instead:

“Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return.”

It’s not inconsequential that this very kind of thinking has been gaining prominence in contemporary critical thought.  From Rob Nixon to Richard Dienst and Wai Chee Dimock, a sense of “slow time” and “deep time” has gained a vigorous prominence as a way of thinking about a present that doesn’t fall into a form of presentism, which in turn is prey to market thinking and its renunciation of both past and future.

Francis then enumerates three other ideas that are suppose to guide our discernment (a very important word within Catholic circles): “unity prevails over conflict”; “realities are more important than ideas”; and “the whole is greater than the part.”  All of these ideas also have their counterparts in contemporary critical thought.

I don’t mean to suggest that Francis has been reading such scholarly works (although after reading this document I wouldn’t in the least be surprised).  Rather, what I want to emphasize is that what Francis’s document enables is (1) a potential dialogue between such academics and religious practitioners who are often pitted against, and who often pit themselves against, each other; and (2) an occasion for reflection on how ideas that have long shaped critical thought in the academia, especially among those who embrace a broadly leftist political agenda, might now be moving rapidly into the mainstream.

At best, both of these possibilities are speculative on my part.  There’s no way to know what direction Francis’s leadership of the Church will eventually go, and there’s no way to know how his message will be received.  Also, the document itself is long and this is only an incomplete discussion of it, so there are undoubtedly many issues I’ve left out and important caveats I haven’t made.  But the appearance of this document is also a sign, I believe, that something fundamental about the Catholic Church is changing under Francis’s leadership, a prospect that gives me greater joy than I am accustomed to feeling when thinking about an institution that has for so much of my life loomed large.

The whole document can be found here.

©2013 Min Hyoung Song