Pope Francis: To Care for the Poor is Not Communism, It is the Gospel

A new book on the social teaching of the first Jesuit pope has just arrived in bookstores in Italy.  “Papa Francesco. Questa economia uccide” (Pope Francis: This economy kills) is the title of the book co-authored by Andrea Tornielli, the coordinator of Vatican Insider, and Giacomo Galeazzi, the Vatican correspondent for the Italian daily, La Stampa.  (I am a sometime contributor to Vatican Insider.)

The 228-page book written in Italian (published by Edizioni Piemme Spa Milano) brings together and analyzes Francis’ talks, writings and other interventions on the economy, poverty, immigration, social justice and the protection of creation.  One chapter summarizes his talks and actions in this broad area before he became pope, but most of his interventions come from the period since his election as Bishop of Rome on 13 March 2013.  

The text includes interesting contributions from two Italians who are experts in the economy, finance and the social doctrine of the Church: Ettore Gotti Tedeschi  (a banker and former head of the Vatican Bank) and Stefano Zamagni  (professor at Bologna University and longtime collaborator with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace).  They discuss their different reactions to Francis’ interventions on the above mentioned topics.

The book also devotes a chapter to the attacks against Pope Francis in this whole area, and concludes with a new interview with him conducted by Andrea Tornielli last October, on capitalism and social justice. The following is an extract from that interview:

ANDREA TORNIELLI

GIACOMO GALEAZZI

‘Marxist’, ‘Communist’, ‘Pauperist’. Francis’ words on poverty and social justice, as well as his frequent calls for concern for the needy, have drawn criticism and accusations, sometimes expressed with harshness and sarcasm. How does Pope Francis feel about this? Why is the theme of poverty so prevalent in his teachings?

Your Holiness, is the capitalism of the last decades, in your opinion, an irreversible system?

‘I would not know how to answer this question. I recognise that globalisation has helped many people rise out of poverty, but it has also damned many others to starve to death. It is true that global wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities have also grown and new poverty arisen. What I have noticed is that this system sustains itself through a culture of waste, which I have already discussed various times. There is the politics, the sociology and even the attitude of waste. When money, instead of man, is at the centre of the system, when money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced to simple instruments of a social and economic system, which is characterised, better yet dominated, by profound inequalities. So we discard whatever is not useful to this logic; it is this attitude that discards children and older people, and is now affecting the young. I was shocked to learn that, in developed countries, there are many millions of young people under 25 who are jobless. I have dubbed them the ‘neither-nor’ youth, because they neither study nor work. They do not study because they do not have the opportunity to do so, they do not work because there are no jobs. But I would also like to highlight an aspect of the culture of waste; that which leads people to discard babies through abortion. I am shocked by the low birth rates here in Italy; this is how we lose our link to the future. The culture of waste also leads to a hidden euthanasia of older people, who are abandoned. Instead of being considered as our memory, our link to our own past and a source of wisdom for the present. Sometimes I ask myself what the next waste will be. We need to stop before it is too late. Let us stop, please! Therefore, in an attempt to answer your question, I would say that we should not consider this state of things as irreversible. Let us not resign ourselves to it. Let us try and build a society and an economy where man and his welfare are at the centre, instead of money.

Can more ethics in economics bring about change, in the form of an increased consideration for social justice, or is it also right to speculate about structural changes to the system?

 

‘First of all, we need to remember that we need ethics in the economy, and we also need ethics in politics. More than once, various heads of State and political leaders, whom I have met since my election as bishop of Rome, spoke to me about this. They told me that we, the religious leaders, need to help them and give them ethical indications. Yes, the pastor can make his appeals, but I am convinced that we need, as Benedict XVI recalled in his encyclicals Caritas in Veritate, men and women with their arms raised in prayer to God; conscious that the love and sharing, which engender genuine development, are not a product of our hands, but a gift to ask for. At the same time I am convinced that we need these men and women to commit themselves on every level, in society, politics, institutions and the economy, to work for the common good. We cannot wait any longer to deal with the structural causes of poverty, in order to heal our society from an illness that can only lead to new crises. The markets and financial speculation cannot benefit from absolute autonomy. Without a solution to the problems of the poor, we will not solve the problems of the world. We need projects, mechanisms and processes to implement better distribution of resources, from the creation of new jobs to the integral promotion of those who are excluded’.

Why do Pius XI’s strong and prophetic words, in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, against the international imperialism of money, sound, to many – even Catholics – so radical and extreme today?

‘Pius XI only sounds extreme to those who feel struck by his words and hit where it hurts by his prophetical condemnations. But the Pope was not exaggerating, he told the truth after the economic and financial crisis of 1929, and, as a good mountaineer, he saw things as they were, he could look far. I am afraid that those who still feel called to question by Pius XI’s rebukes are the ones who have gone too far…’

Are both the pages of the Populorum Progressio, where it says that private property is not an absolute right but rather subordinate to the common good, and the pages of the Catechism of St. Pius X, who lists, among the sins that cry to Heaven for vengeance, the oppression of the poor and defrauding labourers of their wage, still valid?

‘Not only are they still valid, but the more time goes on, the more I find they have been proved by experience’

Your words about the poor as the ‘flesh of Christ’ have shocked many people. Are you bothered by the accusation of ‘pauperism’?

‘Before Francis of Assisi came, there were the ‘Pauperists’; there were many Pauperist streams in the Middle Ages. Pauperism is a caricature of the Gospel and of poverty itself. Instead, St. Francis helped us discover the deep connection between poverty and the way of the Gospel. Jesus states that we cannot serve two masters, God and wealth. Is this pauperism? Jesus tells us what the ‘protocol’ is, on which we will be judged. It is the one we read in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison, I was sick, I was naked and you helped me, clothed me, visited me, took care of me. Whenever we do this to one of our brothers, we do this to Jesus. Caring for our neighbour; for those who are poor, who suffer in body and in soul, for those who are in need. This is the touchstone. Is it pauperism? No, it is the Gospel. Poverty takes us away from idolatry and from feeling self-sufficient. Zacchaeus, after he met Jesus’ merciful gaze, gave half of his fortune away to the poor. The Gospel’s message is for everyone, the Gospel does not condemn the wealthy, but the idolatry of wealth, the idolatry that makes people indifferent to the call of the poor. Jesus said that, before we offer our gift upon the altar, we must reconcile with our brother to be in peace with him. I think that, by analogy, we can extend this request to being in peace with these poor brothers.’

You highlighted the continuity with the tradition of the Church in its concern for the poor. Can you give us some examples of this?

A month before he opened the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said ‘The Church shows itself as it wishes to be, everyone’s Church, and particularly the Church of the poor.’ In the following years, this preferential treatment of the poor entered the official teachings. Some may think it a novelty, whilst instead it is a concern that stems from the Gospel and is documented even from the first centuries of Christianity. If I repeated some passages from the homilies of the Church Fathers, in the second or third century, about how we must treat the poor, some would accuse me of giving a Marxist homily. ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.’ These were St. Ambrose’s words, which Pope Paul VI used to state, in Populorum Progressio, that private property does not constitute an absolute and unconditional right for anyone, and that no one is allowed to keep for their exclusive use things superfluous to their needs, when others lack basic necessities. St. John Chrysostom stated that ‘not sharing your goods with the poor means robbing them and taking away their life. The goods we own are not ours but theirs’. (…) As we can see, this concern for the poor is in the Gospel, it is within the tradition of the Church, it is not an invention of communism and it must not be turned into an ideology, as has sometimes happened before in the course of history. The Church, when it invites us to overcome what I have called ‘the globalisation of indifference’, is free from any political interest and any ideology. It is moved only by Jesus’ words, and wants to offer its contribution to build a world where we look after one another and care for each other’.

Bill Mazzella
2 years 6 months ago
Bravo Francis. You give us the real Gospel. Not sugar coating by hierarchs who bow down to the rich while sharing their lifestyle. Dives and Lazarus is real. Not symbolic.
ed gleason
2 years 6 months ago
As a comfortable progressive, Pope Francis words are making me start to feel uncomfortable.about my comfortableness.. so like Bill Mazzella I say 'bravo Francis'
John Placette
2 years 6 months ago
We all believe in the message of the Gospel. How it is accomplished is in question. The Vatican could sell all its historical treasures and give the proceeds to the poor. In five years, we might be back to square one. "Teach a man to fish..." is still the best answer.
Vince Killoran
2 years 6 months ago
I read this kind of response a lot from conservatives. When I follow up to ask them what they mean they don't have much to say, except perhaps that the old "bootstraps" lecture. It seems woefully inadequate in the face of workplace danger, exploitation, and poor wages.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 5 months ago
I was surprised to hear the Pope say he "was shocked to learn that, in developed countries, there are many millions of young people under 25 who are jobless." I thought this was a well-known fact, particularly in countries in Europe (19% across the EU: in Spain it is 42%, in Greece it is 49%) and that there is an almost direct correlation between the size of the "welfare state" and unemployment. Here are 3 reasons for high youth unemployment in Europe: 1) protections against losing one's job have the unintended affect of inhibiting the employment of new workers (a business is slow to hire if its hard to fire - too risky) 2) welfare taxes make unskilled or inexperienced workers unprofitable (e.g. in France, it costs an employer twice the wage to hire a worker) and 3) massive regulation (in so-called free markets) and taxes inhibit new companies forming or established companies expanding. And the Holy Father says the young have no opportunity to study - but this is in nations with "free" healthcare and education (nothing is really free - it is just paid for in hidden or less efficient ways). Even as America tries to copy some of these policies, it has had the slowest recovery from a recession in decades (still hasn't hit 3% growth -http://www.wsj.com/articles/another-growth-dip-1422662756?KEYWORDS=growth). Maybe Churchill's statement about democracy could be applied to Capitalism. He said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The Holy Father also decries the rising wealth inequality and calls for more distribution. Well, free trade has produced the greatest redistribution ever - from wealthy nations to poorer ones. A problem is that the distribution is from lower middle class in rich nations to relatively very poor abroad. And while the recent claim from OxFam that the 80 richest people in the world owned nearly half the world's wealth was fabulously wrong (they actually own less than 1% - http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/upshot/why-we-cant-blame-a-few-rich-people-for-global-poverty.html?abt=0002&abg=1), there is indeed a recent rise in wealth inequality, since the most productive part of an economy ("the rich") usually recover first after a recession. This should come down in time in countries that have policies to encourage economic investment and job creation. So, here are some practical suggestions: 1) Teach and demand a strict moral code of conduct from our teens and youth. All government laws should promote keeping families intact (and make family breakup hard to do). While this is easier said than done and the baby boomer generation, the media and Hollywood are terrible examples for the youth, there will be no long term solution until our culture gets this right. Lip service is not enough. 2) Remove the safety net for those 25 and under (no minimum wage, no legally mandated benefits, union memberships, vacations, etc.), with some exceptions for hard cases. They also should not have to pay social security or medicare/medicaid taxes until they are making at least $25k a year. The most productive young adults in this age range will be able to command higher salaries and benefits without the legal mandates and the others will learn good working skills so they can become more productive. Many in this age group could stay on their parent's health insurance (up to 26) and could stay at home until they can afford to move out. 3) All state colleges should have no tuition (some colleges offer work at college in return for no tuition) and they can pay for this with the incomes they get from success in sports and alumni and other donations. Even private colleges like Harvard and Yale, with their billions in endowments, no longer need to rely on tuition. With needs based tuition, much of this is already happening for the poor and lower middle class (families with less than $50k), except that many in the middle class still run into serious financial obstacles. 4) On Redistribution, double the deductions for donations for the physical needs of the poor (keep the single deductions for religious groups the arts etc.). Eliminate Corporate taxes for companies willing to locate into underprivileged areas, etc. The Church's teaching on a preferential option for the poor should not be confused with a preferential option for government solutions. The government, in this day and age, is often anti-Christian, and it is a Trojan horse mistake to abdicate care for the poor to them.

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