Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States begins with his arrival in Washington D.C. on Tuesday afternoon. From the nation’s capital he goes to its economic capital, New York City, before concluding his trip with a visit to the nation’s birthplace in Philadelphia.
That itinerary seems to suit the Pope’s message: that political institutions must respond to the needs of the people, that the economy is a tool for human betterment rather than an end in itself, and that it is just as possible to remake society today as it was when this country was founded.
You don’t have to agree with all of the Catholic Church’s doctrines to recognize that the Pope's message has a timeliness and urgency. New data underscores his call to reduce economic inequality. The ongoing deaths of African Americans in police confrontations highlight his message of social justice. And the planet itself is in peril.
The Pope said this in Bolivia earlier this year:
“Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”
Francis was addressing the second World Meeting of the Popular Movements, a gathering of grassroots organizations and popular movements jointly hosted by the Church and the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales.
The “economy of exclusion and inequality” carries tragic consequences for the Third World, but its effects can be seen in this country as well. As the Census Bureau reported last week, the median household income in this country fell by 1.5 percent last year, a figure which averages out to $805 per household. While that decrease is not considered statistically significant, it means that, as Neil Irwin notes in the New York Times, “the median American household in 2014 had a lower income, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it did in 2013.”
The median income was 6.5 percent below its 2007 level, before the onset of the Wall Street-generated financial crisis, and 2.3 percent below its 2009 level. Official unemployment figures have improved. But labor-force participation, an important measure of the job market, is the lowest it’s been in decades - even for working-age Americans. Meanwhile our nation’s level of economic inequality remains “extremely high.”
Given the Pope’s urgent call to help the poor, it‘s important to note that U.S. poverty rates did not decline over the past year. Nearly 47 million Americans – 14.8 percent of the population – are poor, and that’s according to standards which many people believe understate the problem. (The Census Bureau’s “Supplemental Poverty Measure” puts the percentage at 15.3 percent.) More than 20 million people in this country earn less than half the income at which a household is considered impoverished.
The Pope’s anti-poverty message holds special poignancy when we consider the youngest among us. Two out of five American children will experience at least one year of poverty during their lifetime, according to a new study, including 75 percent of African American children and 30 percent of white children.
The Pope said this in Bolivia: “A just economy must create the conditions for everyone to be able to enjoy a childhood without want, to develop their talents when young, to work with full rights during their active years and to enjoy a dignified retirement as they grow older.”
That sounds like a progressive agenda: “A childhood without want” requires an end to poverty. Free higher education is needed if all young people are to “develop their talents when young.” It will take full employment – and workplace democracy – to allow Americans to “work with full rights.” And Social Security must be defended and expanded if we are to “enjoy a dignified retirement.”
The Pope’s moral teachings are equally forceful when it comes to international economics. He has condemned the “new colonialism” which, he says, sometimes appears as “the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”
It’s highly unlikely that he supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“ … an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules …”
The Pope’s New York schedule does not appear to take him through Wall Street, but he might want to consider an informal visit. There, as perhaps nowhere else on Earth, “money rules.” Financialization – the process by which bankers seize more and more control of the real-world economy – is reaching epidemic proportions there, and therefore throughout our economy. (The Roosevelt Institute has issued a new report on the subject.)
With that power comes an ideology of free-market worship. Francis has been scathing in his dismissal of the phenomenon he has called the “idolatry of money.” He has been particularly (and rightly) dismissive of the Right’s beloved “trickle-down economics” and the ability of “the free market” to right societal wrongs, writing in his encyclical "Evangelii Gaudium": “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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
He adds: “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.”
As he told his Bolivian audience: “Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women … it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”
Francis may also want to use his New York visit to address what he has called the “monopolizing of the communications media,” which he described as an “ideological colonialism” that “would impose alienating examples of consumerism and a certain cultural uniformity.” As Bill Moyers has reported in depth, media consolidation represents a threat to the public’s ability to know – a fundamental requirement for democracy.
The Pope rejects the me-at-any-cost ideology of conservatism for a more communitarian view that recognizes that isolation can breed despair. “Many people,” he said in Bolivia, “are hoping for a change capable of releasing them from the bondage of individualism and the despondency it spawns.” He praised activists for “carry(ing) out your work inspired by fraternal love, which you show in opposing social injustice.”
He weaves all these issues together in his environmental encyclical, "Laudato Si," where he writes:
“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is not the only one calling for a "political revolution" of mobilized citizens to work alongside elected officials. Pope Francis has called for “change enriched by the collaboration of governments, popular movements and other social forces,” a “true, worldwide ethical mobilization which … will spread and put into practice a shared ideal of fraternity and solidarity, especially with regard to the poorest and most excluded.”
This pope is an optimist. He described the activists gathered in Bolivia as “sowers of change,” and said of his social vision: “Such an economy is not only desirable and necessary, but also possible. It is no utopia or chimera. It is an extremely realistic prospect. We can achieve it.” He has called for “the globalization of hope” to replace “the globalization of exclusion and indifference,” adding:
“Let us not be afraid to say it: We need change. We want change.”
“Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy,” Francis has said. “It is a moral obligation.”
Soon we will know how that message is received in this country. It is coming at a critical moment in our – and the world's – history.