So, our Pope Francis has clearly chosen to put poverty and the Church’s teaching about a preferential option for the poor at the center of his papal ministry. But how much of this is new, and how much is a restatement of formal Catholic teaching?
First, we should be clear that there is a lot in Francis’s approach to poverty and the poor that is not new. Of course, care for people who are poor has been a constant throughout Christian tradition. Notably, that includes approaching poverty not just through works of charity but through works of justice, that is, by attending to the social structures that support it.
To be sure, charity has been the dominant aspect throughout that history, but we find there too the Church’s insistence that in many ways, the help we offer to people in poverty is owed to them by right rather than simply offered out of kindness. It’s in the preaching of the great third- and fourth-century “fathers of the Church” and the thirteenth-century theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. It took a more prominent place in the nineteenth-century teaching of Leo XIII and has been embraced and developed by many of his successors. This includes, in modern times, frequently questioning the morality of liberal capitalism.
Pope Leo (pope from 1878-1903) authoritatively rejected the idea that labor is a commodity to be purchased for whatever the market will allow, that a wage contract is fair as long as the laborer is willing to agree to its terms. At a time when many in the West treated the laws of economics like the laws of nature, Leo said that’s not how it is. He also insisted that the state has a necessary place in the protection of workers and the poor.
Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), who introduced the term “social justice” into the Catholic vocabulary, was a radical critic of the capitalist system. In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, he called it an “unjust economic regime whose ruinous influence has been felt through many generations” and called for structures designed to limit competition in the marketplace that leads to exploitation of the poor. The theologian Donal Dorr has argued effectively that Pius XI rejected capitalism “not just in its present form, but in its essential nature.”
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), though less radical in his criticisms of capitalism, called for a more just distribution of wealth and insisted on the universal destination of goods (relativizing the right to private property) in ways that would have made even most liberals in America today uncomfortable.
Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), also no radical on social or economic issues, did insist that “economic prosperity of any people is measured less by the total amount of goods and riches they own than by the extent to which these are distributed according to the norms of justice.” That passage comes from Pope John’s encyclical Mater et Magistra (n. 74), which offered a strong advocacy of increased social welfare programs designed to protect and assist the poor — so strong, in fact, that it led conservative leader William Buckley (founder of the National Review) to respond with his now famous “Mater si, Magistra no.” John also wrote strongly on the social nature of private property, arguing that property owners not only should give up some of what they own for the sake of a more just distribution of goods, but that they could be compelled by law to do so.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) proclaimed that “excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace” (in the constitution Gaudium et Spes n. 29). It called for “many reforms” of social and economic structures, including, for example, the creation of institutions to regulate international trade in order to protect the poor and the common good against exploitation that can result from following the “law of supply and demand” and the expropriation of massive Latin American estates owned by wealthy private individuals and families in the name of the social nature of private property.
Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) expanded the Church’s understanding of social justice to the international level. Particularly in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, he criticized the economic and social imbalances between rich and poor nations, including those left by past colonialism, caused by a present neo-colonialism, and reinforced by trade imbalances. He criticized dominant international trade relations as unjust and called for “bold transformations in which the present order of things will be entirely renewed or rebuilt” (PP 32). In echoes of Pope Pius XI’s radical criticism of capitalism, Paul wrote that
certain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations. This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the “international imperialism of money.” Such improper manipulations of economic forces can never be condemned enough; let it be said once again that economics is supposed to be in the service of man.
In a landmark encyclical on evangelization, Pope Paul insisted that evangelization must include proclamation that the Gospel means “liberation from everything that oppresses man,” and while he notes that this means “above all liberation from sin and the Evil One,” it would also clearly include economic and social forces of oppression, for the Church seeks the conversion of “both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieu which are theirs” (18). This includes liberation from “famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism… This is not foreign to evangelization” (30).
Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) too called for a “transformation of the structures of economic life” (Redemptor Hominis, 16). Among his very many pastoral visits around the world, he expressed the Church’s option for the poor concretely by several significant personal visits to areas marked by poverty. Dorr points to one of these, his pastoral visit to Brazil in 1980, as especially important. In addition to expressing solidarity with the poor, Dorr suggests it also expressed solidarity with the bishops of that nation “in their commitment to putting the Church on the side of the poor and oppressed.” On that trip, he called upon government and economic leaders to “do all you can to ensure the disappearance, at least gradually, of that yawning gap which divides the few ‘excessively rich’ from the great masses of the poor, the people who live in grinding poverty.” And to the poor, he insisted that “God’s will” must never be an excuse to accept difficult conditions passively.
In his encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, John Paul developed further the Church’s critique of capitalism, pointing out the structural injustices it encourages. And in another encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he called upon Christians to live a more vibrant solidarity with the poor and criticized both the “structures of sin” that help to keep them poor and also the “super-development” of the West
which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of “possession” and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of “consumption” or ” consumerism ,” which involves so much “throwing-away” and “waste.”
Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) offered a strong theological foundation for the Church’s approach to social justice, particularly in two major encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Vertitate. In the latter, he called for a greater openness to the element of “gratuitousness” in economic activity and commercial relationships, and he invited business people to consider “a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise,” dual-purpose businesses that stand “between profit-based companies and non-profit organizations” by seeking to make a profit while also more intentionally serving the common good.
Clearly, the Church’s social justice tradition is long, rich, and startlingly challenging to modern capitalist economic structures.
What Is New in Francis?
One interesting thing that becomes clear by this review of the tradition of modern Catholic social teaching, specifically the ways it has expressed a preferential option for the poor and offered a critique of global capitalism, is that Pope Francis’s teaching and ministry is not particularly original or groundbreaking in its content. His concern for the poor and his insistence that poverty is an issue of justice as much as charity is consistent with those of his predecessors of modern times. His critique of capitalism is probably a bit more radical than some of his predecessors (Pius XII and John XXIII), but it is probably no moreso than the critiques offered by Popes Pius XI and Paul VI.
So it is fair to ask, is there anything new here? It seems that we ought to be able to say that there is, if only because, as Archbishop Chaput succinctly put it, ““The right wing of the church … generally have not been really happy about his election.” Indeed, the “conservatives” have clearly been troubled and flustered by Francis in a way that they seem not to have been by previous popes and their teaching.
Part of this is the directness with which he speaks and acts. Like Pope John Paul II, he has a knack for the dramatic gesture that catches people’s attention and conveys a powerful message before even a word is spoken. Powerful examples of this are the Pope’s journey to Lampedusa and his letter to the G-8 leaders, both mentioned in previous parts of this series.
Another part of it is his unwillingness to leave much “wiggle room” in his teaching and public comments, in which some conservatives have often found space to fit capitalist ideologies, though ultimately only by ignoring or even distorting many other elements of papal teaching.
But there is still more to it than all of this, and this final point is probably the most important. A review of previous, authoritative papal teaching, from which it is hard not to conclude that there is little that is new in what Francis is saying, makes the most important point somewhat obvious: Pope Francis’s preferential option for the poor and his presentation of Catholic social teaching has been, to many, far more effective, and he has posed more of a challenge to conservatives — and to each of us who live and breathe the modern capitalist, consumerist, superdeveloped culture — because of the integrity of his personal witness to the ideas he proclaims.
To be sure, previous popes were good teachers and good people. John XXIII and John Paul II will both — deservedly, in my opinion — soon be canonized. Perhaps Paul VI and Benedict XVI will be also someday. But Francis’s personal religious and ethical imagination has allowed him to put aside long-accepted expectations about how a pope should live and act in a way that has captured the attention of millions of people, and it has made his teaching all the more effective. And this remarkable and distinctive way of living and acting has itself become an important part of his option for the poor.
Pope Paul VI wrote memorably, nearly two generations ago now, that
for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41)
In his asking for the blessing of the people in St. Peter’s Square before offering them his own blessing on the day of his election, in his willingness to share a bus seat with his brother cardinals just after his election rather than travel in a separate transportation, in his choice of a rather simple Ford Focus rather than a custom-made BMW or Mercedes as the car he travels in, in his decision to forgo the papal residence in the apostolic palace in favor of a seemingly permanent guest room at Saint Martha House, in his Holy Thursday washing of the feet of troubled teens in a detention facility rather than clergy in St. Peter’s Basilica, and in a personal demeanor that radiates simplicity, humility, and joy, Pope Francis has shown how correct his predecessor Paul really was.
Francis’s lifestyle and ways of relating to those around him have made his witness much harder to ignore or distort or reject.
In Part 6, we’ll bring this series of posts to a conclusion. Previous parts can be found at these links: Part 1, 2, 3, 4. I want to acknowledge Donal Dorr’s Option for the Poor and for the Earth: Catholic Social Teaching as a helpful resource in my preparation of this post.