Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dear Rush Limbaugh (et al): "This Exhortation is not a social document"

 Given that my title contains a quote as clear as the above, I shouldn't need to expand this post one sentence further. But I've encountered some confusion lately regarding Pope Francis' new exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, in regards to its intended message about economics.  Rush Limbaugh, most notably, offered a scathing rant on the topic on his radio program (later half-retracted), but I've heard the same types of concerns voiced by many people around me.

The exhortation is so rich, I couldn't begin to adequately explain all of the facets of merely the section on economies, but I think it's helpful to clarify a few points.

1. Clear and Consistent.

The Pope himself says, as my title suggests:
"This Exhortation is not a social document, and for reflection on those different themes we have a most suitable tool in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, whose use and study I heartily recommend. Furthermore, neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems" (EG 184).
 He means it, I am fairly certain, the way it reads: Evangelii gaudium is not intended to be a definitive road-map--especially not one to be globally applicable or even multi-nationally inclusive--for economics.  Quoting Paul VI, he says: "'It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country'" (EG 147). It is not an updated Catholic version of a little red book, or a Marshall plan.  It is a comment on economics from the perspective the social and the spiritual.  It is not concerned with dictating the structures, but is instead calling attention to the impact of the structure on the people.  This people-and-poor oriented lens is totally consistent with Francis' papacy so far, and to omit that is to miss the entire heart of the message, and the intent of its author.

2. What you do, not (dictating) how you do it.

One example of the kind of 'economic suggestions' Francis makes is that of the just wage.  Far from being radical, his statement is enthusiastic and optimistic, but hardly unreasonable:
"We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people, but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use" (EG 152)
I have heard people claiming that this means he is for the redistribution of wealth, or that he is for socialized medicine, or that he is calling for a kind of religious-Communism, and, perhaps because South America is so close to his heart, it is assumed that he himself endorses Socialism.

A problem that seems to be plaguing this Pope's words is the sound-byte mentality of our media culture. Nobody reads what he actually says, and if they do, they only read a snippet, out of context.  To quote him as saying that everyone should have access to education, healthcare, and a job, could indeed sound like Socialism if not fitted accurately and comfortably within the context of the rest of the exhortation.

But it is not a social document, and even the sentence that mentions the just wage itself offers clarity.  To offer a person a just wage, a living wage, with which they can adequately care for themselves and their family (and I beg your pardon, but minimum wage in the United States is not even close to a just wage) is not the same as socializing and federally subsidizing elements of everyday life that would otherwise be unaffordable to someone who is being underpaid.  Hallmarks of Communism and Socialism are the fatal poverty, yet also the touted equality.  A just wage is a simple, general concept that has no political attachments, no economic implications.  It certainly says nothing about taking from the rich to give to the poor.  It is merely a request for the care of human dignity, in ways, as the earlier quote from Paul VI suggests, that are tailored by each respective country to their cultural and economic structures.

 3. Income Distribution
The exhortation does treat with the matter of an imbalanced distribution of income.  Francis says that the suffering of the poor, resultant in part from a lack of just wage or equal opportunities, "seem[s] to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development" (EG 203). 
He states point blank that "as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills" (EG 202).
However--and this is an integral 'however'--nowhere does he offer an explicit or specific political or economic structure to supplement or replace any existing ones.  While he is very wary of the dire risk of "trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market" (EG 204), he does not target capitalism, or any other specific system, by name, nor does he say that any extant systems cannot or should not be preserved.  What he says is that it is time for citizens, governments, and politicians to focus the trajectory of their goals and efforts towards the care of the dignity of the population in their given locale.  He calls for deliberate "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" (EG 204), but it is nowhere stated or even implied that a government (or any other entity) is solely responsible for, or should have total authority over such mechanisms.  A Communist or Socialist would seek to place the responsibility for these things in the hands of a completely centralized government, since they believe the populace incapable of administering any kind of justice or equality themselves.  Pope Francis, far from this position, suggests a tandem personal and communal accountability for the other, for the neighbor.

Furthermore, it is not that he has an intrinsic hatred of or problem with, say, capitalism.  It is simply that, from the perspective of a shepherd concerned with the well-being of his flock, he is objectively noting a broken mechanism.
"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" (EG 204).
He can hardly be clearer than by his words in the preceding.  Populism--'the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite'--is the kind of umbrella under which falls other ideologies, including Socialism and Communism.  Thus, the Pope is definitively dismissing the idea of his endorsing any 'populist' ideals, which he sees as 'irresponsible'.
"Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole. Each meaningful economic decision made in one part of the world has repercussions everywhere else; consequently, no government can act without regard for shared responsibility" (EG 206).
If his immediate words in the exhortation were not enough, he clarified even further in an interview a few days later (in which he stated unequivocally: "Marxism is wrong."), the translation of which you may read here if you are interested.

The take-away? It's the same as I could (and have) noted about Pope Francis before: Context. He is scintillatingly clear, but even the most eloquent, pithy individual would sound different, even opposite, if unmoored from any kind of context. At first I thought that it might be helpful to suggest this contextualization as a reading strategy for Francis; but on further thought I realize that this is a common courtesy we pay to so many others on a regular basis--the media is often criticized for taking soundbytes out of context, and we are incensed by the subsequent misappropriation and misapplication of someone's words. Why should this be any less or any different for our Pope?
"If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth" (EG 208).

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