'Not two crises, but one'

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week, Pope Francis delivered a major speech on the occasion of his receiving the Charlemagne Prize. My colleague Joshua McElwee reported on that speech here. I would like to start with one section of that speech and then call the readership's attention to another important speech last week, delivered by Cardinal Peter Turkson, which serves to explicate some of the most important themes of this papacy and of Catholic social teaching more generally.

McElwee reported:

Francis also lamented the situation for young people across Europe, who he said are not being offered 'dignified labor' that helps them integrate into societal structures and grow in intelligence and ability. 'The just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy,' said the pontiff. 'It is a moral obligation. If we want to rethink our society, we need to create dignified and well-paying jobs, especially for our young people.'

For the pope, work is not only a means to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. It is a primary means by which society constitutes itself, by which people engage with one another and contribute to the good of society as a whole. Work is the opposite of exclusion and unemployment is, then, a vehicle for dehumanization. 

Cardinal Turkson spoke to a gathering of church and labor leaders at a multi-day conference in Rome last week. I was pleased to see that in his opening remarks, he specifically applauded the work of Fr. Clete Kiley, the foremost labor priest in the U.S. and who is, like myself, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. I am very familiar with Fr. Kiley's work, especially on behalf of immigrant workers, and try to help him to the extent I can. But, I was delighted that the Prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace was aware of his work.

In his remarks, Cardinal Turkson pointed to one of the more overlooked sections of Laudato Si', the first anniversary of which is approaching later this month, the section on work. The cardinal said:

If you pick up Laudato Si' and ask, 'What's at the heart of this Encyclical of 246 paragraphs?'-- you will happily discover that at the very centre are six paragraphs (LS §§ 124-129) entitled 'The need to protect employment.'

It's as if to affirm that decent and sustainable work is fundamental to how we care for our common home. Work acquires its true character when it is decent and sustainable for workers, employers, governments, communities, and the environment. Such work is the means for developing and expressing every individual's human dignity, and it participates in the ongoing creative work of God. To quote Pope Francis: 'we ourselves become the instrument used by God to bring out the potential which he himself inscribed in things' (§124).

Unless decent work is sustainably provided for all, it will prove impossible to care for our common home. This may seem almost too simple to be true, but it is far too true to continue to be overlooked and violated!

In short, our economic and social life must be predicated on the significance of workers, not consumers. Ever since Adam Smith, it has been the consumer that has ruled economics. This fixation on the "laws of the market" has led to an ideology that leaves no room for the human person and her dignity, that treats labor as just another commodity, and has resulted in, and continues to stoke, the environmental crisis that our planet faces. "The basic idea behind sustainable development is that it is no longer sufficient to measure human progress in terms of economic growth and the accumulation of material wealth. True development must rest on three legs -- economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability," Turkson said. 

Then, the cardinal quotes perhaps the most important passage in Laudato Si' in which the pope writes:

It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (LS §139)

The crisis we face is now too obvious and too large to deny: How else could some people see Donald Trump as the answer to the crisis!?

The social and economic crisis is this: We have an economy of exclusion, and a polity that refuses to challenge the ideology of the market that has generated the economy of exclusion. We do not start with the most basic human quality, work. We start with an alien and hateful ideology rooted in supposed "economic laws" that are, in fact, human creations, not natural ones, but which are so prevalent, no one dares to question them. This is why, if you go to a conference on Laudato Si' and they do not speak about both human ecology and multinational corporations, they don't get it.

I mentioned Mr. Trump. Let us grudgingly admit that he acknowledges there is a problem. Regrettably, for an answer he combines a kind of economic and political populism in which he is the caudillo with the politics of racial resentment we associate with George Wallace, Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan. Sen. Bernie Sanders also thinks there is a crisis, and he proposes solutions drawn from the playbook of democratic socialism. Alas, Sanders seems totally uninquisitive about how and why socialist solutions have failed so abysmally in the past. And Sec. Hillary Clinton never questions the system per se, preferring minor adjustments in governmental policy designed to achieve discrete objectives. She at least gets points for humility.

In both the pope's speech about Europe and the cardinal's speech about the labor, they did not offer a list of policy proposals, nor a detailed, programmatic "solution" to this one crisis that is often, and falsely, portrayed as two crises. They called for social dialogue. We in America are suspicious when we hear a call for dialogue. Such calls usually come from politicians who do not want to confront a problem or wish to avoid making a choice with unpleasant political consequences, so they advocate dialogue as a stalling tactic and as a dodge. Nor is the dialogue proposed about academics sitting around a table pontificating about ideas. Still less is it one of those faux town hall meetings CNN likes to sponsor for candidates to field softball questions.

A social dialogue recognizes that while people must be the agents of their own future, this agency is impossible if we focus overmuch on the individual. Tyrants always build large edifices, both real and rhetorical, to make individuals feel insignificant because their tyranny usurps all social agency and deposits in the party or the leader or the state or the "laws of the market." Against these, the individual doesn't stand a chance. Social dialogue encourages people to come together into social groups, like unions and other civil society actors, and give voice to their own situations, their own grievances, and their own hopes. The church accompanies people in this dialogue, but does not usurp it. The social dialogue both helps to create and presupposes a sense of belonging, not exclusion, among the participants. The Holy Father's emphasis on these meetings of social movements is key to understanding how he sees the church's role in accompanying those who work for justice in society. Whenever I go to a meeting of church and labor leaders, I know it is going to go well because both groups speak so much of the same language, operate within the same sense of shared responsibility to their church or their union, and are accustomed not just to talking but to listening.

This blog post has gone on long enough. The topic warrants not just future posts but whole books and, more importantly, social dialogues, moments in time when groups come together and work through the words, dia-logos, to the human reality they have experienced. Stay tuned. Here, in the Holy Father's and Cardinal Turkson's speeches last week, we see a way forward for society that is more promising that what one hears on the campaign trail on either side of the Atlantic and on either side of the equator.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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