Pope Francis: Change rooted in local realities, not imposed from above

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 10, 2015

If you haven’t read our news story on two dramatic addresses Pope Francis gave today in Bolivia, you owe it to yourself to do so. The Pope insisted on a change of heart, on the development of a society in which we enter into the lives of others, rather than permitting ourselves to be ruled by economic factors and money. There are links to the full text of the Holy Father’s remarks at the end of the story.

Francis touched on a number of issues, including the genocide against Christians in many places, especially the Middle East. But the bulk of his remarks focused on the problems created for human society when we ignore the Church’s primary economic principle, which is the universal destination of goods. This is the principle, acknowledged even before the right to private property, that God intended the goods of creation not just for some privileged persons but for everyone. Any economy which consistently marginalizes and impoverishes large classes of people, therefore, has essentially abandoned the common good in favor of self-interest.

It is not surprising to see this point stressed in an apostolic journey to Latin America, where the gulf between rich and poor is immense, and opportunities for most people to escape poverty are relatively rare. There are growing economic problems throughout the West, of course, and even in the United States, the gap between rich and poor is widening. But in general Americans and Europeans have little conception of the profound and all but hopeless economic inequality which plagues Latin America—and which is often exploited on all sides: by large corporations, by criminals and by government.

Francis stressed three most important tasks in the course of his message:

  1. The economy must be put at the service of people, not people at the service of the economy.
  2. Local peoples must be respected in their dignity, not viewed and used as tools of consumerism (consider constant media advertising in this light!).
  3. The earth itself must be defended and protected for the good of all.

In saying these things, the pope made a point of emphasizing that he was not calling for ideological solutions imposed from outside, but for solutions developed from within the community out of fraternal love, solutions firmly attuned to local realities.

Conversion and cultural change before politics?

This last point is of the greatest importance because, when our spiritual leaders speak about the development of an economy rooted in the principles common to both the natural law and Christianity itself, too many wish to deflect that zeal to justify all kinds of controls and even utopian schemes by the State.

This creates a huge problem because people tend to respond politically when in fact we usually do not possess an effective politics. Almost nowhere do we enjoy a government—or a constructive political atmosphere—which respects the real nature of the human person as revealed in either natural law or Christian Revelation. More often, government produces laws and regulations from a kind of revolving door in which the wealthy circle in and out of business to make money and politics to preserve it. (Do you doubt this? Investment regulation is a superb example of the revolving door at work.)

The absence of an effective politics in the modern world must be kept in mind whenever we fall into the trap of thinking that the optimal solution to socio-economic problems is to pass laws. No, what Pope Francis calls for is a culture formed by millions of people who regard entering positively into their neighbors’ lives as a more powerful driving force than money. The Holy Father highlighted Our Lord’s own methods. For example, Francis reflected on the way Our Lord responded to the blind Bartimeus who called out from the roadside in desperation:

[H]e didn’t decide whether Bartimeus was worthy or not before speaking to him. He simply asked him a question, looked at him and sought to come into his life, to share his lot. And by doing this he gradually restored the man’s lost dignity; he included him…. There can be no compassion without stopping, hearing and showing solidarity with the other.

One could just as easily say that without this sort of engagement there can be no real society. Once again I want to emphasize a major point which all seem to enjoy forgetting: The solidarity that characterizes a healthy social order does not come primarily from laws. It cannot be created by compulsion. It comes first and foremost from an ever-widening pattern of inclusion, which also involves a kind of mutual conversion. As a practical matter, this means it must come from Catholics and other men and women of good will. It must come from all of us who are willing to include others in a life enriched by spiritual, moral and material gifts—gifts that we have and others lack.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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