There has been a great deal of commentary about the Holy Father’s new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudiium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). There is so much in this document, which is a manifesto for the New Evangelization, and a roadmap for the future of the Church’s mission.
The document has only been out for a week, and most people (myself included) have not read all of it or digested it fully. But I’m finding much of the discussion online to be very curious. Many people are fixating on a few comments Pope Francis made about our economic system, and they’re speaking as if the Holy Father has “attacked capitalism”, as if he were against a free market economy.
Of course, a careful reading of the document, and an understanding of its purposes, shows that this is unwarranted. The Holy Father did not attack free markets per se. The thrust of his critique was not on instrumental grounds — what form of economic organization generates the most overall wealth, or that offers the most theoretical opportunities for growth. He was certainly not writing a prescription for economic public policies or a commentary on the latest economic statistics. In a sense, all that is beside the point the Holy Father was making.
Instead, he was looking at the economy from a pastoral and moral perspective. His critique is ultimately anthropological — what does the economic situation and the prevailing attitudes say about the human person, and what effect does it have on us as full human beings. The real point is the Holy Father’s attempt to evaluate the current state of affairs based on what was said by the Second Vatican Council: “Man is the source, the focus, and the aim of all economic and social life” (Gaudium et Spes 63).
In many ways, the Pope’s primary challenge is to ask us the question, “What is man? Are we mere economic actors and consumers, or are we more than that?” In effect, his comments about the economy are a reflection on the virtue of solidarity, and the nature of authentic human development.
To be honest, I find it hard to see how people could disagree about his diagnosis of the anthropological flaws of our current economic system, and the moral culture it has created — which is “unjust at its root”, as the Holy Father says. We are living in a socioeconomic environment that is crassly consumerist and materialistic, with increasingly large separations of poor and rich that are celebrated instead of regretted, with an amoral relativistic worldview that is contemptuous towards authentic morality and that treats people in coldly instrumentalist and utilitarian way. In other words, we live in a world that is “inundated by sin” (Catechism 401).
Anyone who spends ten minutes watching one of the “Real Housewives” or “Kardashian” episodes would have all the evidence he needs to get what the Holy Father is talking about. Anyone who has spent time with poor people, especially those in isolated areas (either the slums of our cities, or in the economically dead rural areas of upstate New York or Appalachia), will also understand what the Holy Father is talking about when he speaks of exclusion and inequality. For a sense of some of the lives of young people that the Holy Father is talking about, this recent Times article about youth unemployment in Europe is illuminating. And that’s to say nothing of what all this must look like from the almost inconceivable slums of Brazil or the isolated parts of Africa.
Actually, if people went back and re-read Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), they would find much of the same criticism of the current socio-economic system, again primarily from an anthropological perspective. Indeed, Pope Benedict’s oft-repeated call for an authentic “human ecology” (see, for example, his 2006 World Day of Peace Message) is particularly pertinent to this discussion.
Pope Francis is challenging us to look at our economy not merely as a mechanism for wealth generation, but as an environment in which human persons live. We are called to transform that environment to make it more humane, so that people can live and develop in all aspects of their being — not just material, but social and spiritual as well. Our economy is only as healthy as the persons who live in it.
A key point to remember is that the Holy Father’s remarks about the economy have to be seen in the context of the entire exhortation, which is about spreading the Gospel in our modern world. The primary ground in which the seeds of the Gospel are to be sown are among those living with the negative effects of the world economy — the very poor, the marginalized, etc. The Gospel offers them hope that they can “be more” (see Caritatis in Veritate 18 for a beautiful explanation of this concept). Of course, that’s the same as it was in the early days of the Church — the principal proclamation of the Gospel was to the poor and outcasts (women, slaves, non-aristocrats).
If people are reading the new document as if it’s just a critique of “capitalism”, then that’s very sad. There is so much more, and the economic comments are just a small part of what the Holy Father is offering — an invitation to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person, to every part of society, and to every aspect of life.