Pope Francis brings to the United States a sense of urgency that has been sorely missing in Washington and on too many of the campaign trails of our endless election season. At the White House on Wednesday morning, the pope spoke as expected about the absolute necessity of protecting the planet. He hailed President Obama for “proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution.” And he said, “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.”
“When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about ‘a sustainable and integral development,’ for we know that things can change,” the pope explained. “Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them. Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities and our societies. To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”
That “now is the time” message is a critical one.
There are specific issues to be addressed. And they must be addressed with the “fierce urgency of now” about which Dr. King spoke. It is this understanding that underpins the pope’s argument that “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”
In the 184-page encyclical that was released earlier this year, and that outlines the agenda he brings to the United States, the pope focused a great deal of attention on issues of climate change. But the discussion of environmental issues was placed in the broader context of a discussion about modern life—including a savvy critique of how technologies are changing that life for better and worse.
At the heart of the pope’s critique is an understanding that “We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that the problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”
Pope Francis well understands, as Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, the national Catholic social-justice lobby, has noted, that “Growing markets will not sufficiently address poverty or environmental problems.”
What the pope also suggests, correctly, is that supposed “leaders” who imagine that it is best to wait for the market to resolve challenges are not leading at all.
“What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” asks the pope in the encyclical.
Much will be made of the overt and subtle messages delivered by this pope as he visits the United States. There will be agreements and honest disagreements—by conservatives who differ with his position on climate change and immigration policy, by liberals who are ill at ease with the Catholic Church’s stances on abortion and marriage equality. There will be debates about what to make of his points of emphasis.
But there can be no question that this pope is informing our understanding of the contemporary crisis with a critique—by a Catholic leader whose encyclical makes more than 60 references to the condition of the poor—of “the magical conception of the market.”
Markets are not magic. They are often flawed and dysfunctional and cruel. And they often fail to find solutions. Indeed, they often make the messes that require solutions.
Government may not have every answer. But activist government is part of the solution—along with organized people and a demanding citizenry.
Elected leaders—who try to absolve themselves of responsibility to address overwhelming economic and social challenges, and to act for the common good, by suggesting that we should “let the markets work their magic”—are failing humanity and the planet.
A sense of urgency is appropriate in a moment of climate crisis, economic inequality, war and obsessive preparation for war, racial injustice, and social upheaval. Those who seek after positions of power must have that sense of urgency. If by their imagining that markets will solve all problems they suggest “their inability to take action when it [is] urgent and necessary to do so,” then surely they invite skepticism about the point of their pursuit of power.
As Sister Simone has wisely observed, what Pope Francis says “seems obvious, but elected officials will probably just work harder to justify their market analysis while they curry favor with those who control those markets—and fund their campaigns.”
“I do think, however, that he will affect voters,” adds Sister Simone. “According to the pope, today’s challenge is to select leaders willing to engage the tough questions. His clear, commonsense approach is compelling.