We recall the image of Jesus entering the temple in Jerusalem, driving out the merchants and overturning the tables of the money changers. This was a stern reminder to separate the holy from the mundane.
Likewise, we recall the image of a golden calf molten in the absence of Moses on Mount Sinai. Were precious metals more seductive to the impatient Israelites than an invisible power?
But we probably have forgotten the work of Liberation Theology in Latin America (1950s-1960s), where Catholic teachings were used to fight economic, political and social inequalities. This movement wasn’t condoned by Rome, but had wide support from local bishops who tended to their oppressed flocks.
We also haven’t made much of U.S. bishops’ Pastoral Letter(s) on the Economy (1970s and 1986) that railed against economic inequalities and the departure from Christian principles of brotherly love and helping the poor.
Economic reality, we have been led to believe, isn’t dictated from above — God or the treasury secretary — but moves naturally in the cycles of the “invisible hand.” So invisible, in fact, that any crisis is explicable after the fact in terms of “market forces” or the “laws of supply and demand.” Human agency is absent.
The recent “Apostolic Exhortation” by Pope Francis focuses on human agency in our economic system. His theological interpretation of a moral life here and now is intertwined with the economy.
This is a Catholic view steeped in 2,000 years of tradition, when the fortunes of the Mother Church depended on wars and wealth accumulation. Being the single largest denomination on Earth, the significance of the “exhortation” is global. The action, though, should be local.
Mindful that he speaks as the vicar of Christ, Pope Francis deliberately fuses theological concerns of evangelism with economic reality: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” This situation, for him, means “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”
He describes our economy as one of “exclusion and inequality,” but becomes more critical when he says: “Such an economy kills.” Not hurts or overlooks at the expense of others; it kills. Referring to media, he asks: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
When the stock-market index hovers above 16,000, why do commentators bother to claim the Dow is “up” or “down” when it moves a few points in either direction? The percentage change is so negligible that the very reporting seems hubris. Do greed and fear consume our daily lives? Do these numbers help to reassure us?
Reminding us that the poor are excluded from our midst, he continues: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” Have you heard this assessment lately at church?
For Pope Francis, and some critics of hyper-capitalism, the economy is part of his theology: Its principles follow or undermine moral principles. If market exchange of goods and services is defined in monetary terms, moral hazards appear. If transactions are justified by potential benefits — ends justify the means — what happens in the meantime? Will “trickle-down economics” indeed reach the poor?
Pope Francis: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, never confirmed by facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” In fact, “the excluded are still waiting.”
The “tyranny” of the current system and the “culture of prosperity” are harmful, according to the pope. “We have created new idols,” and we continue to worship them. There is “idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Should we live like this?
Whether one is Catholic or not, as Christmas is celebrated and New Year resolutions made, it behooves us to think of Pope Francis’ words: “I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com.