“There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast.”
– Andrew Carnegie
It may seem strange to open a discussion of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) with a quote from an icon of capitalism and a self described atheist. But a deeper understanding of message requires a step back with greater context. Francis is not decrying capitalism – far from it – but he calls for wealth to serve the human spirit and be a genuine force for liberation. The distinction is not academic but is a theme Barataria has elaborated on as well.
Francis has been a remarkable Pope from the start. His remarkable humility is matched only by his outreach to the masses on twitter and through more conventional means. He has never shied away from difficult matters and has promised major reforms to the Church itself which are still being formulated.
His teachings, however, have to be taken up by the world in order to have the desired effect – and that will involved interpretation and digestion by the masses he is trying to reach. The message in Evangelii Gaudium (pdf, English) is not going to be an easy one, especially in the developed world.
“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and an-guish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” (2)
The entire document is not about economic concerns – it is about how to have a joyous life centered on the examples and teachings of Jesus. Discussions of politics and money are rather brief but are pointed enough to gain a lot of attention. The problem is that taken out of the context provided by Francis the message is lost. What did he really say about money? That it is only a tool, and it must serve people.
“Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.” (204)
Sounds like Communism? Francis makes it clear that he is not teaching that:
“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (203)
What is the greater calling? To connect and to serve, to be a leader and an example that brings peace and joy to the world. And Francis teaches that this cannot be done with a consumer mindset:
“Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary. This openness of the heart is a source of joy, since “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.” (272)
There is still a tremendous amount of room to mis-interpret these teachings, and many will deliberately do so. The accumulation of wealth has become central to the identity of many people in the developed world and they will certainly take a challenge to wealth for the sake of wealth as a personal affront. They shouldn’t. Francis is calling instead for an economics that serves people – one that actually frees them from worrying about material goods so that they can have a richer spiritual life.
In a sense, this is nothing more than seeing economics and money as a just a subset of all the other things people do to make their lives happy and fulfilling. The work of Karl Polanyi, an economist whose life overlapped Andrew Carnegie’s, is based on this very same idea. Francis is not proposing anything new in Church doctrine or economics in any way – but he is offering the world a perspective that is often lost.
It’s not radical, it’s not Communism. It’s a call for a richer, more fulfilling life – an economics based on people ahead of money. It is worth understanding and appreciating by everyone, not only Catholics. And for this, Pope Francis’ teachings are a great service to the world.