Pope Francis's address to the World Meeting of the Popular Movements in Bolivia on Thursday was described as a "little encyclical" by the editor of L'Osservatore Romano. Given its breadth and rhetorical power, that seems about right. Initial reports emphasized the pope's apology for the church's "many grave sins...committed against the native peoples of America," and of course that would receive some attention, given that it plays into the idea of the Catholic Church as unyielding. But the remark came late in the speech, following a withering critique of a globalized economy that operates on the "mentality of profit at any price" without concern for "social exclusion or the destruction of nature."
Do we realize, Francis asked, "that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?" He referred to these "three Ls"--land, lodging and labor--as "sacred rights." And, lest anyone wonder whether the Argentine pope was laboring under a benighted idea of capitalism, Francis made it clear that he was not just talking about the economies of Bolivia and its neighbors. No, "I am speaking about problems common to all Latin Americans and, more generally, to humanity as a whole." This system is "intolerable," he continued, echoing his encyclical on the environment, Laudato si': "Farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable… The earth itself--our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say--also finds it intolerable."
Time is short, the pope declared. The planet and its people are suffering; we need change now. "Behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea--one of the first theologians of the church--called 'the dung of the devil.' An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the 'dung of the devil.'" Pace David Brooks, Francis failed to mention the free market's wonderful ability to "harness self-interest" and put it to good, that is to say profitable, use. No, he has witnessed the system's failures firsthand, in the slums of Buenos Aires, in his travels as the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, "I have sensed an expectation, a longing, a yearning for change, in people throughout the world."
Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home, sister and mother earth.
But diagnosing the problem is not enough. Indeed, "we are suffering from an excess of diagnosis, which at times leads us to multiply words and to revel in pessimism and negativity," Francis said. Something must be done. But how? How can a poor collecter of recyclable goods work for change when he spends most of his time trying to put food on the table? What can a tradesman do without labor rights? What can a farmer do while he's being crowded out by agribusiness? What can the marginalized do? The students whose dreams for social justice animate their activism? How can any of them tilt against a system as totalizing and ravenous as the global free-market economy?
They can do a lot. They really can. You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” – do you agree? – (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels. Don’t lose heart!
Francis mentioned a phrase he had heard during his visit to Bolivia: "the process of change"--surely music to the ears of this pope of process. Structural change without a change of heart never lasts. "That is why I like the image of a 'process,' processes, where the drive to sow, to water seeds which others will see sprout, replaces the ambition to occupy every available position of power and to see immediate results." It's not about staking out the right position, he continued. It's the process that matters. For for Pope Francis, a process of effecting justice will always require encountering those who suffer. Being with the homeless, the persecuted, the exploited, moves us. "This is something quite different than abstract theorizing or eloquent indignation," Francis said. "It moves us; it makes us attentive to others in an effort to move forward together."
Admitting that "neither the pope nor the church has a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solutions to contemporary issues," Francis listed "three great tasks" for the members of the popular movements.
First, put the economy to the service of people, and not the other way around. An economy of exclusion and inequality kills, Francis argued. It "destroys Mother Earth." The economy "should not be a mechanism for accumulating goods, but rather the proper administration of our common home." What's more, "a system which, in addition to irresponsibly accelerating the pace of production, and using industrial and agricultural methods which damage Mother Earth in the name of 'productivity,' continues to deny many millions of our brothers and sisters their most elementary economic, social and cultural rights. This system runs counter to the plan of Jesus, against the Good News that Jesus brought." He called it an "idolotrous economy."
Instead, the economy should guarantee not only the three Ls--land, labor, and lodging--but also health care, education, opportunities for artistic expression and recreation. "Such an economy is not only desirable and necessary, but also possible. It is no utopia or chimera. It is an extremely realistic prospect. We can achieve it." And working to ensure the just distribution of goods is not "mere philanthropy," according to the pope. For Christians, it is a commandment:
It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right. The universal destination of goods is not a figure of speech found in the Church’s social teaching. It is a reality prior to private property. Property, especially when it affects natural resources, must always serve the needs of peoples. And those needs are not restricted to consumption. It is not enough to let a few drops fall whenever the poor shake a cup which never runs over by itself. Welfare programs geared to certain emergencies can only be considered temporary and incidental responses. They could never replace true inclusion, an inclusion which provides worthy, free, creative, participatory and solidary work.
The government has a role in fostering a more just economy: "Governments which make it their responsibility to put the economy at the service of peoples must promote the strengthening, improvement, coordination and expansion of these forms of popular economy and communitarian production." That means "bettering the processes of work, providing adequate infrastructures and guaranteeing workers their full rights in this alternative sector."
The second great task, according to Pope Francis, is to resist the new colonialism. "At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain 'free trade' treaties, and the imposition of measures of 'austerity' which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor." The "monopolizing" of the media is also an aspect of the new colonialism, as it imposes "consumeriam" and "ideological uniformity."
Third, Francis exhorted his people to defend the planet. "Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin," he said. The time for denial is over. "We cannot allow certain interests--interests which are global but not universal--to take over, to dominate states and international organizations, and to continue destroying creation."
He concluded with a stirring message of hope:
The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you.
Each of us, let repeat from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age. Keep up your struggle and, please, take great care of Mother Earth. Believe me; I am sincere when I say from the heart that I pray for you and with you, and I ask God our Father to accompany you and to bless you, to fill you with his love and defend you on your way by granting you in abundance that strength which keeps us on our feet: that strength is hope.
With that, Pope Francis requested the prayers of the assembled--and if they could not pray, he asked only for their good thoughts.
"Hope does not disappoint."