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Bishop's Monthly message

Healing a Wounded Economy


Last month, Pope Francis was named person of the year by Time magazine. The editor, Nancy Gibbs, stated that Pope Francis was selected because, in a noisy year, a surprising new voice emerged on the world stage to remind us - quoting the pope himself - that the "culture of the temporary" is the road to ruin and that "it is the culture of prosperity that deadens us."

Hence, Gibbs suggests that Pope Francis is sure to become a man "watched closely within his Church and far beyond."

Pope Francis also appeared on the cover of The New Yorker magazine in December, depicted making a snow angel. The accompanying article, penned by James Carroll, pointed out that Francis' first 10 months have radicalized the image of the Church, underscoring that "the Church's purpose was more to proclaim God's merciful love for all people than to condemn sinners for having fallen short of strictures."

Carroll notes that Pope Francis' focus "is less ideological than intuitive, an inclusive vision of the Church centered on an identification with the poor."

This concern for the poor is most evident in Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), wherein he writes: "God's heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that He Himself 'became poor' (2 Corinthians: 8-9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor."

For the poor
Hence, Francis says, "this is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor."

Indeed, quoting from Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter issued at the outset of the 21st century, "Novo Millennio Ineunte" ("At the Beginning of the New Millennium"), Francis states that "without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today's society of mass communications."

In particular, Pope Francis excoriates "the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any true human goal." He offers a critique of the world's economy: "In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interest of a deified market, which becomes the only rule."

This problem, writes Carroll, Francis opines as "fundamental to every problem." The pope says that "inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve."

Thou shalt not
For Francis, "just as the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."

Thus, William Keegan, the senior economics commentator for the British Observer, suggests in The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly, that "for Pope Francis, an 'economy of exclusion and inequality' merits a modern version of the commandment 'thou shalt not kill,' because the homeless and the poverty-stricken who cannot afford proper heating are more vulnerable to the whims of the Grim Reaper than the likes of the fictional Gordon Gekko, the epitome of the overpaid Wall Street trader who famously proclaimed in the film 'Wall Street' that 'greed is good.'"

By contrast, Pope Francis points out that "while the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few."

Contrary to the "trickle-down" theory of some economists, Francis says that such approaches "assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world." But the pope opines that "this opinion expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

Economic solutions
Consequently, Pope Francis concludes that "we can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth; it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.

"I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism," he adds, "but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded."

Some have faulted Francis' analysis. For example, Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host, denounced it as "pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope." Writing in the National Review, Samuel Gregg, the author of "Tea Party Catholics," rejected the Pope's "straw-man arguments about the economy."

A more thoughtful rejoinder comes from the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote, "When it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty, global capitalism, faults and all, has a better track record by far than any other system or approach."

Capitalism OK?
It is true that capitalism has done more to raise millions from poverty than any other economic system. However, it should be noted, as columnist Kathleen Parker does in the Washington Post, that "the pope never mentions redistribution. He is challenging our idolatry of money and obsession with things, a cultural fascination that distracts us from the needy. What is the successor of St. Peter supposed to do when he sees so much suffering even in free-market societies? Quote Ayn Rand?"

To those critics who would argue that the analysis of Pope Francis is leading to class warfare or to a European style of socialism, I believe Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts rebuts this line of reasoning by reaffirming, as does Pope Francis, the economic discussion in terms of a social contract between the rich and the rest of society. She notes, "There is nobody in this country that got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

"Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

My experience
That is the corporate contract with America: societal symbiosis. We must create a society in which smart, hard-working people can be safe and prosper, and they in turn reinvest a fair share of that prosperity back into society for posterity.

When I was assigned to minister in the inner city of Albany in 1966, I had great optimism and hope for the future. The efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had resulted in civil rights legislation designed to end discrimination in housing, employment, education and voting.

The War on Poverty launched by President Lyndon Baines Johnson promised a new and brighter tomorrow through programs like Head Start, the Job Corps, Economic Opportunity zones for minorities and affirmative action for jobs and college entrance.

At the time, I believed that while it would take a generation or two for these initiatives to bear their rich fruit, eventually things would improve dramatically.

While some blacks, Hispanics and poor whites have benefitted from these public policies and programs over the past half-century - and moved from poverty into the middle class, and some to affluence - unfortunately, by and large, if anything, things have gotten worse rather than better, with 46 million people living below the poverty level, including one out of every six children.

The percentage of minorities graduating from high school and going on to some form of higher education remains abysmally low. Our streets are less safe; our housing stock has decayed; living-wage jobs have decreased and educational achievement remains stagnant.

Further, there is the emergence of youth gangs, which weren't a major problem in Albany during the mid-60s, with their attendant difficulties of bullying, intimidation, substance abuse and crime.

Racial implications
Lest my perception be viewed as overly pessimistic, let me cite an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Princeton economist and columnist Paul Krugman, titled, "How fares the dream?" "Goodbye Jim Crow, hello class system," writes Krugman.

He points out that while "economic inequality isn't inherently a racial issue," there are racial implications to the way our incomes have been pulling apart.

Krugman writes, "In the 1960s, it was widely assumed that ending overt discrimination would improve the economic as well as legal status of minority groups. And at first this seemed to be happening. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, substantial numbers of black families moved into the middle class, and even into the upper middle class; the percentage of black households in the top 20 percent of the income distribution nearly doubled.

"But around 1980, the relative economic position of blacks in America stopped improving. Why? An important part of the answer, surely, is that circa 1980, income disparities in the United States began to widen dramatically, turning us into a society more unequal than at any time since the 1920s."

Reverse the trend
Krugman suggests, "Think of the income distribution as a ladder, with different people on different rungs. Starting around 1980, the rungs began moving ever farther apart, adversely affecting black economic progress in two ways. First, because many blacks were still on the lower rungs, they were left behind as income at the top of the ladder soared while income near the bottom stagnated. Second, as the rungs moved farther apart, the ladder became harder to climb."

Krugman concludes, "The fact is that rising inequality threatens to make America a different and worse place - and, we need to reverse that trend to preserve both our values and our dreams."

I think both Pope Francis and Mr. Krugman have offered a correct diagnosis. Now it remains for us individually and communally to find correct societal and global remedies.

(January 02, 2014)