As Francis began his journey to World Youth Day, in his comments to reporters he touched upon the specifics he will face in Brazil and sounded what are becoming familiar notes from his papacy. The two will come together in a provocative way in Brazil.
Francis spoke of the effect of the global economic crisis upon the young, who are “at risk” of becoming a generation deprived of work. This deprives them not only of dignity, but “strips them of the possibility of belonging.” “We are used to a discarding culture, all too often with the elderly. But now, with so many young people out of work, the disposable culture comes even to them. We must end this habit to discard!” Against this isolation and exclusion of this disposable culture, Francis called instead for a “culture of inclusion, a culture of encounter.”
This brief comment encapsulates well Francis’s noteworthy manner of bringing together spiritual questions with structural analysis of the global economy. This is not at all easy to do. The temptation is always to reduce one to the other.
This balance was evident in Francis’s challenging homily at Lampedusa and in a different form, his May address to the ambassadors of Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg and Botswana (nations that serve as international tax havens).
At Lampedusa, Francis spoke of the “globalization of indifference” in which we “become indifferent to the suffering of others.” This has its roots in the Fall itself, in which seeking to be God, humankind lost its bearings; unable to see the “other as a brother or sister to be loved” but rather as “a disturbance of my comfort.” This perennial weakness, is strengthened in our capitalist consumer economy. We live as disconnected individuals in the “empty illusion” of lovely “soap bubbles,” concerned only for ourselves.
Francis proposed a remedy—lived compassion—the tears that come from “suffering with others.” Here Francis’s gift for uniting practical, spiritual wisdom with structural analysis shines. “Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep…over the cruelty of the world, of our own hearts, of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this.”
Francis attends to the cosmic, the personal, and the concrete policies that bring about injustice. He calls for a personal response that attends to the injustice of these social and economic decisions, without presuming these are only personal failings.
Francis went even further into a critique of structures in his May address to the ambassadors. Echoing Benedict’s provocative use of “dictatorship,” Francis spoke of the “the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” Solidarity–that “treasure of the poor”— is “considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy.” Invoking the image of the golden calf, Francis describes our idolatrous acceptance of the “power” of money “over ourselves and our society.”
This idolatry is manifest in “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules.”
Francis describes well the neo-liberal economic vision that—after decades of violence, coercion, and ideological argument—now functions as the constitutional law of the globe. This hegemony systematically tears the common good from the realm of politics and seeks to place it an every way possible in the hands of private economic actors and transactions.
This is the “dictatorship,” the invisible…virtual tyranny” that ties the hands of all politicians; frustrating the hope raised by electoral political victories from South Africa, to the United States and Brazil. It is surely one of the fundamental frustrations that drives young people into the streets from Zuccotti Park to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Their frustration with partisan politics is very real, and justified. But it is not simply because of the corruption or inadequacy of political parties (however inadequate and corrupt they may be!). Rather, the frustration with tradition politics is a protest against a world where the most important decisions about our collective common good have been outsourced to the private sector; where export-led economic growth is both the primary policy for achieving the common good, and the overwhelming priority even when it does nothing of the sort.
To the ambassadors, Francis called not merely for personal conversion, but for new policies: financial and economic reforms – “money has to serve, not to rule!” The common good should be the center of public policy, “not be simply an extra, simply a conceptual scheme of inferior quality tacked onto political programs.”
Francis’s visit to Brazil for World Youth Day in the wake of the massive protests (manifestações as they are provocatively called in Portuguese) is worth watching as he brings his challenging message of spiritual discipleship facing the structural injustices so deeply ingrained in our current form of globalization. Can he communicate this message with sufficient teeth for a generation rightfully frustrated with the established order? Can he communicate its Gospel roots and principles to mobilizations that are often as anonymous as the economic forces they seek to challenge?
He will bring this message to a generation that no longer needs large organizations such as the church to act in the world. The internet and social media provide new forms of organization that allow mass mobilization and action across great distances. These tools have not shown themselves sufficient to build deep relationships or to sustain targeted constructive mobilizations.
The question is not simply how well Francis can communicate this graceful challenge. Much more than that, it is the fundamental challenge facing the Catholic Church: the worlds largest and indeed oldest global organization. Can the Church deepen the bonds between believers and communities at a time when economic forces and media technologies increasingly render us isolated individuals? Can the Catholic Church strengthen the bonds between its constituent communities around the world so that they might have sufficient strength to challenge and redirect a globalization currently limited to shallow and often exploitative economic exchange?
Can the Church do more than denounce the “globalization of indifference” and truly contribute to a “globalization of solidarity?” Can we scale up solidarity from the local level to the global scale that the injustices of our age demand?