Progressives across the U.S. applauded Pope Francis’ first major written statement of his papacy, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), for denouncing trickle-down economics, runaway inequality, and the idolatry of money while devoting comparatively little space to the Church’s retrograde attitudes on women and staunch opposition to abortion.
As usual with Church teachings, it is very hard to fit the full range of Catholic thought into secular ideological boxes, particularly in the United States. For every papal pronouncement like “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,” there’s a deeply conservative social counterpart (e.g., “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life”).
Apostolic exhortations like Evangelii Gaudium are basically calls to carry out existing Church teachings, so in many ways there’s nothing unique about the sentiments expressed in the document. The frontal assault on neo-liberal economic dogma and call for people to get out in the streets to evangelize the more communal and harmonious message of the Church will certainly spark a lot of discussion. But what really matters now is what progressives, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, plan to do with Francis’s exhortations. How do we ensure that the Pope’s shift in focus to inequality and the well-being of the poor becomes a focus of actual politics and not just a bunch of nice words that make us feel like our philosophical principles got a nod from the Big Guy?
One of the key moves in turning any important book, speech, or treatise into concrete political accomplishments is refining its principles into a core agenda and value system that people can educate and organize around. Luckily, Evangelii Gaudium is quite amenable to this treatment.
First, let’s talk about the Catholic concept of a “just wage.” The exhortation expresses important ideas about the dehumanizing nature of the modern economy and the social exclusion implicit in global capitalism. It also explicitly argues social welfare programs are not enough on their own and that we should reach higher for a “just wage,” a longstanding idea in American Catholic social thought dating back to the Progressive and New Deal eras. For Pope Francis, this means all people should “have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use” — expanding the notion of a “wage” well beyond simple renumeration. It’s a demand for both the government and corporations take seriously duties to provide “education, access to health care, and above all employment” to, respectively, citizens and employees.
Second, the Pope provides a clear explanation of why resisting everyday materialism should be part of a progressive social strategy. As we promote decent wages for people so they can achieve autonomy in life, Pope Francis reminds us not to fall into the demoralizing trap of excessive consumerism that replaces higher order values with meaningless commercial transactions that help fuel further social exclusion and isolation. “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”
Third, he develops an expanded notion of progressive taxation and regulation. Pope Francis is clearly upset about the false promises of laissez-faire ideology. He envisions a way out not through revived Marxist radicalism (“I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism,” Francis writes) but through sensible balance of market and state activities: “decisions, programmes, 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.”
Finally, the Pope’s notion of human dignity provides a resonant moral grounding for progressive politics. Pope Francis expresses an important reality that in most human societies conflict “cannot be ignored or concealed.” But he does offer a clear path out of the unending cycle of hatred, mutual distrust, and eventual warfare by encouraging people to consciously channel conflict into understanding:
In this way it becomes possible to build communion amid disagreement, but this can only be achieved by those great persons who are willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity. This requires acknowledging a principle indispensable to the building of friendship in society: namely, that unity is greater than conflict. Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity.
This is a Catholic document written with the express goal of informing the world’s nearly 1 billion Catholics about the goals, focus, and beliefs that will drive the Church during Francis’s papacy. As such, it’s on progressive Catholics to integrate the exhortation into our activism. The welcome shift in focus from divisive social issues back to alleviating poverty and integrating the poor into modern society can help progressive Catholics reach new communities, particularly Latinos and younger people, and reestablish contact with white ethnic Catholics who may have drifted away.
At the same time, progressives are a diverse lot and need not agree with the Pope’s direct call for Catholic evangelization or his specific remedies for social renewal. Catholics and secular humanists alike share many of the same commitments and values about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, building what philosopher John Rawls calls an “overlapping consensus” — a set of political values and commitments agreed upon by a diverse group despite differences in their most basic moral beliefs.
Progressives have used this Rawlsian technique to articulate a new agenda in the past. Tom Hayden and the other members of Students for a Democratic Society integrated the teachings of Pope John XXIII with work by philosophers John Dewey and Albert Camus to produce the 1962 Port Huron Statement, which outlined the vision and agenda of the 60s New Left. Like SDS, today’s progressives try similar things with Pope Francis’ exhortation: form study and discussion groups that discuss it, for example. Ask people to translate its values into policies that would improve their communities. Have people write these ideas in their own words and explain them to others. Create specific issue campaigns based on its teachings about immigration, poverty, peace, and inequality.
If just a fraction of the world’s Catholics, plus other non-Catholic yet progressive-minded people, take Pope Francis’s values to heart, organize around them, and “evangelize” (in a non-denominational sort of way), then a “Catholic Spring” to inaugurate a new period of activism to help solve the problems of inequality here and across the globe may be on the horizon.