“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.”
So wrote Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation. Released last fall, the pope’s Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), is a nuanced yet urgent document. And it makes for good reading at a point when Americans are wrestling with the social, political and practical implications of income inequality, poverty and the failed austerity agenda of the trickle-down fabulists.
As Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby, explains it, the pope’s exhortation is rooted in an understanding “that reality—read, real people’s lives—is more important than any theoretical construct.”
To that end, Network, the group that sent Nuns on the Bus to congressional districts across the country in 2012, has launched a year-long project that used the pope’s message to encourage new thinking and new organizing to address inequality and injustice.
The key is the thinking. The United States is a secular nation, founded with respect for a diversity of religious belief and disbelief, and regard for Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State.”
Sister Simone and her allies understand that, just as Jefferson took counsel from the texts and teachings of the various religious traditions, contemporary Americans can be encouraged to consider the moral implications of poverty amid plenty. And to consider the reality of what inequality means for those who former Vice President Hubert Humphrey referred to as “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Sister Simone argues that this consideration can, in turn, “cause us to grow in a way that a federal budget battle or a Congressional Budget Office report never will.”
What Network is inviting is a rethink that could discomfort elected officials who have spent their careers neglecting a duty to the poor.
The exhortation from Pope Francis does not mince words in order to comfort those who are ill at ease with an economic-justice gospel. Nor does he dodge questions regarding the fundamental responsibility of those in power: from President Obama to Paul Ryan.
“It is the responsibility of the State to safeguard and promote the common good of society,” writes the pope. “Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building, it plays a fundamental role, one which cannot be delegated, in working for the integral development of all.”
The pope, as a spiritual leader, a Jesuit scholar and an increasingly influential voice in global economic debates, rejects the notion that government cannot, or should not, play a vital role in addressing the inequality that translates as poverty amid plenty.
“I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots—and not simply the appearances—of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”
The pope is a good deal more specific with regard to the definition of “the common good” than most American politicians—be they Republicans or Democrats. “We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity,’” he writes. “This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.”
The translation of a common-good agenda into reality—getting beyond dialogue to action, as the pope suggests—will not, for the most part, be done by the politicians. Americans, religious and secular, motivated by morality and practicality, will have to do most of the work.
That is why Network, in much the same way that it did with the Nuns on the Bus project, is focusing on popular education and organizing.
Against the pressures of a money-drenched politics and a money-driven governance, Network is asking people to think and to feel and to act on behalf of the common good. It is probably fair to call the project a leap of faith. But in an age on damaging inequality, surely, this is a necessary leap.