The Pope in Ecuador: He Never Read the Federalist Papers

The difference in worldviews between the Catholic and the modern, technological was on full display this morning. In Ecuador, speaking to civil leaders in Quito, the Holy Father said this:

I have often spoken the importance of the family as the primary cell of society.  In the family, we find the basic values of love, fraternity and mutual respect, which translate into essential values for society as a whole: gratitude, solidarity and subsidiarity. 

Parents know that all their children are equally loved, even though each has his or her own character.  But when children refuse to share what they have freely received, this relationship breaks down.  The love of their parents helps children to overcome their selfishness, to learn to live with others, to yield and be patient.  In the wider life of society we come to see that “gratuitousness” is not something extra, but rather a necessary condition of justice.  Who we are, and what we have, has been given to us so that we can place it at the service of others.  Our task is to make it bear fruit in good works.  The goods of the earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage.  In this way we move beyond purely economic justice, based on commerce, towards social justice, which upholds the fundamental human right to a dignified life.  The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits.  As stewards of these riches which we have received, we have an obligation toward society as a whole and towards future generations.  We cannot bequeath this heritage to them without proper care for the environment, without a sense of gratuitousness born of our contemplation of the created world. 

The Holy Father went on to call attention to the presence of residents o the Amazon basin, the need to protect the rich biodiversity of the Amazon, its essential role in the climate of the world, concluding, “Ecuador – together with other countries bordering the Amazon – has an opportunity to become a teacher of integral ecology.  We received this world as an inheritance from past generations, but also as a loan from future generations, to whom we will have to return it!”

Here we see a view of society that rejects the dominant “world is my oyster” view that tends to kindle the hearts, and the ambitions, of most “successful” businesspeople and many, if not most, politicians. The Pope, echoing Pope Benedict’s thought in Caritas in Veritate, contrasts this with the experience, and the value, of gratuitousness. The world and all that is within it are received first as a gift, a gift that belongs to all, producing what Francis calls a “social mortgage” on all property. This is classic Catholic Social Thought, classic Thomism, but it is not how we Americans view things, is it?

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I use the adjective “dominant” above with a purpose: The urge to dominate was recognized by, for example, the founding fathers and the early progenitors of neo-liberal economic theory, but they argued that urge could be harnessed for social progress by pitting it against the similar urges of others. The problem with the founders’ vision is that they cultivate this urge to dominate, but sometimes the mechanisms they believed would harness it do not succeed. When U.S. courts says that the property rights of hedge fund managers – actually vulture fund managers – trump the rights of society, as we saw in their handling of the Argentine sovereign debt case, or as we are seeing debated today in regards to Puerto Rico, then society is left in the lurch and the vaunted “enlightened self-interest” produces only darkness and misery.

The Holy Father offers an antidote. “Out of the family’s experience of fraternity is born solidarity in society, which does not only consist in giving to those in need, but in feeling responsible for one another,” he told the civil leaders. “If we see others as our brothers and sisters, then no one can be left out or set aside.” He called for inclusion and solidarity as the necessary ingredients in a more just and cohesive society. “Hoping in a better future calls for offering real opportunities to people, especially young people, creating employment, and ensuring an economic growth which is shared by all (rather than simply existing on paper, in macroeconomic statistics), and promoting a sustainable development capable of generating a solid and cohesive social fabric,” he said. I do not suppose he is going to get a Christmas card from anyone at the IMF this year.

The Pope then introduced another key pillar of Catholic Social Thought and, in so doing, also exhibited the kind of expansive understanding of “complementarity,” that I hope his critics will notice. He said:

Finally, the respect for others which we learn in the family finds social expression in subsidiarity.  To recognize that our choices are not necessarily the only legitimate ones is a healthy exercise in humility.  In acknowledging the goodness inherent in others, even with their limitations, we see the richness present in diversity and the value of complementarity.  Individuals and groups have the right to go their own way, even though they may sometimes make mistakes.  In full respect for that freedom, civil society is called to help each person and social organization to take up its specific role and thus contribute to the common good. 

Many think tanks in Washington are dedicated to the proposition that their choices are, in fact, the only legitimate ones. Humility is held in pretty low esteem in economics and politics. He uses the idea of complementarity to invite his listeners to see difference as a gift, not a threat. And, he acknowledges that people have “a right to go their own way, even though they may sometimes make mistakes.” I can’t think of an observation less likely to emerge from the “holier than thou” chorus of rightwing zelanti who think any bishop or priest who does not share their interpretation of, say, the stakes in the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage is shirking his job. Compare the Holy Father’s attitude here to that expressed in a new column by Archbishop Charles Chaput on the Supreme Court decision. He wrote:

But Christians also have a duty to think clearly, and to live, teach and work for the truth about the nature of human sexuality, the purpose of marriage and the integrity of the family.  No court ruling can change that.  And the last thing we need from religious — including Catholic — leaders in the face of this profoundly flawed Supreme Court decision is weakness or ambiguity.

Actually, the last thing we need from religious – including Catholic – leaders is a determination to see every difference of opinion as requiring litigation and political machinations. And, while I am all for clear thinking, and support truth as best I can, I think that there is always room for at least a smidgen of compassion and humility, no?

But, the starkest contrast with the Holy Father’s vision was found at Politico, which has an interview this morning with Jeff Holmstead who worked at the EPA during the Bush years. For him, all the problems the country faces will be solved with technology, there is no questioning of the bickering and hyper-partisanship that passes for politics these days, there is no understanding of solidarity or subsidiarity. To be fair, Mr. Holmstead was not responding to the pope, he was responding to an interviewer at Politico, who probably shared his assumptions about the way the world does, and likely must, work. Perhaps the glaring difference in how Holmstead and the Holy Father view the world only struck me because I read the articles one after the other. And, I will stipulate that there are plenty of Democrats who share all the fundamental assumptions that Holmstead does about our politics, if not about what is needed to care for the environment. We all accept the premises of a polity and an economic predicated on competition not cooperation, on autonomy not solidarity.

How will the pope address these fundamental differences when he comes to the U.S.? We are getting some sense this week as he travels through South America. For those of us who swim in the waters of Catholic Social Teaching, the pope’s words are not new, but for American political culture, they are a real challenge. I am hoping both Speaker Boehner and Vice President Biden are squirming in their seats come September when Pope Francis comes to address Congress.

 


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