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Editor's View
A bold call for economic justice for all

Do you think we have enough designated Days? This edition of our paper will get circulated at the end of a stretch that covers Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday.

The scorecard for themes in that succession: Days for gratitude — 1; Days for charity — 1; Days for buying stuff — 3 (plus every day that follows in the all-important holiday shopping season).

And of course there’s been controversy over encroachment of the Black Friday lunacy into the evening of Thanksgiving. I guess the only way that makes sense is if it saves shopping zombies from bundling themselves in sleeping bags in the middle of the night outside a big-box store waiting to rush in at 5 a.m. to grab those “doorbusters.”

Then last week, just before the hallowed day of turkey and football and mythology of a long-ago shared feast between Pilgrims and Indians, and just as the inescapable swarm of Black Friday advertising reached a fever pitch, inciting consumers to a mall mania that couldn’t even be put off until the morning after Thanksgiving — another exhortation sounded in the media and marketing din.

It was a warning and a bold critique, and perhaps the most relevant and resonant message our society has heard from the pope of the Catholic Church in a long time.

Pope Francis issued what’s formally known as an “apostolic exhortation,” and it’s remarkable for its explicit call for the world’s political leaders to do more than pay lip service to addressing global issues of poverty and growing inequality.

He starts with this observation: “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.”

How we react to that likely depends on whether we view pervasive consumerism as blessing or curse, and whether we’re willing to take an honest look at ourselves and consider whether our conscience might be a bit blunted. But it’s a message that won’t be embraced by the shopping masses or the marketing whizzes who foment consumerism.

Francis, who made history as the first Vatican leader chosen from outside of Europe, covers a lot of ground in the 84-page document outlining his vision for a transformation of the church. But what got the media’s attention were his comments in one section, particularly the pope’s referring to capitalism as “a new tyranny.”

Tyranny, of course, is a popular term in right-wing circles to describe things like Obamacare (because how could anything be more tyrannical than extending health care coverage to millions of previously uninsured people?) But how dare the pope label our exalted system of capitalism as tyranny?

Well, he applies the term more accurately than those who bleat “tyranny” as a Pavlovian response to anything associated with Obama. Here’s the context for the pope’s use of the word:

“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few,” Francis writes. “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

Amen, brother. The Occupy movement should have been so eloquent in challenging the insidious corporate takeover of our democracy.

He sees a world where the poor are not just marginalized but outright excluded in a culture marked by “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” And he offers a rebuttal to a persistent delusion: “In this context, 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, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power …

“Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

Rather than making a generalized plea for compassion for the less fortunate, Francis articulates what he believes needs to be done to attain justice, speaking in a more forthright way than most other popes or world leaders would.

“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.”

Mentioning anything about welfare and a fairer distribution of wealth will get conservatives howling, but only because they don’t want to consider his whole message, which is an inconvenient truth.

“I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism,” the pope continues, “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.”

Agree or disagree, you have to give him credit for voicing his convictions in a thoughtful and forceful way.

“Inequality,” Francis warns, “eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve.”

Strong stuff, for sure. But as he continues to exhort Catholics and all people to act ethically and strive for justice, will his voice be heard and possibly make a difference? Or will his message be dismissed, and his warning eventually realized?

Time will tell.

Tim Kelly's picture
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