Where does Pope Francis get his ideas on the economy?
The same place as every other informed Catholic. Like other Christian traditions, Catholicism says God’s truth is revealed through the Bible. Like other Christian traditions, Catholicism says Jesus Christ is God’s unique self-revelation. Catholicism also says God’s One Truth is mediated through reason (philosophy, social science and physical science) and through collective experience. Many Christian traditions agree with this method, but some do not.
Catholic social doctrine is premised on the God-given absolute dignity of each person—from womb to tomb. Further, says Catholicism a person is by God’s design a social being. Therefore, God expects society to enhance personal dignity. A good family makes it easier for its members to be holy. A just society makes wholeness or holiness possible.
Now back to Pope Francis. Drawing upon the Bible, reason and collective experience, the pope frequently talks about the doctrine of participation and its opposite, exclusion. An economy with a large and increasing wealth gap, an economy with stagnant mobility, an economy that encourages an insipid popular culture does not inclusively honor the social character of human nature. This defect cannot be corrected merely by individual conversion or singular change of heart. The social habits of such an economy reflect the premium it gives to individualism. Its symptoms include warehousing of the elderly, inadequate embrace of the disabled, callous comments about refugees, and violence to the young and unborn. The symptoms also include the unfortunate loss of social purpose among many lawyers, some teachers, an increasing number of doctors, plus the frustration of bankers, small business owners, and a fair number of executives.
The way to move back to participation, says Pope Francis, is to cherish small groups and make them the focus of economic and social policies--the family first of all, but also schools, clubs, civic associations, neighborhoods, precincts, professional groupings, unions, soccer leagues, organizations of business people and much more. A dominant market philosophy aims for the maximum happiness (so-called) for the maximum number of individuals. It doesn’t know how to foster personal flourishing within local groups. (In our country Republicans put individual liberty ahead of communal life regarding economics; Democrats favor individualism in regard to lifestyle; and neither seems able to respectfully deliver essential services through local groups, instead of one-by-one from government to isolated individuals.)
The particulars of economic reform must be left to informed business associations, unions, legislatures, advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations and more. Pope Francis and other Catholic teachers are advised not to wade deep into specifics. For example, Pope Francis and other Catholic teachers must talk about a family wage. However, Catholic doctrine does not specifically say $10.10 or $15 or $12.55 is an acceptable minimum wage for a family. Within reasonable parameters of the social principles and with a determined bias for the common good Catholics can disagree on applicable details.
A social policy is not good because it is Catholic. It is Catholic because it is good. This means that ordinary Catholics seek improvements in concert with other Christians and with others of various traditions. It is never a matter of imposing Catholicism on our pluralistic society. Pope Francis is fulfilling his role as a moral leader, encouraging Catholics and all people of good will to be allergic to injustice, to eliminate poverty as much as possible and to cherish the sacredness of life within families and communities.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on Catholic social thought.