The Church and the Poor

Ross Douthat at the New York Times give his usual clear analysis–this time on the economic and political tensions evident in Pope Francis’ exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. In this article Douthat points out that some conservatives are upset by Pope Francis’ economic views, and some are trying to twist the exhortation their way with alleged mistranslations and supposed misunderstandings. There are others who are being more even handed. What is their view:

First, they have pointed out that there’s nothing truly novel here, apart from a lazy media narrative that pits Good Pope Francis against his bad reactionary predecessors. (Many of the new pope’s comments track with what Benedict XVI said in his own economic encyclical, and with past papal criticisms of commercial capitalism’s discontents.)

Second, they have sought to depoliticize the pope’s comments, recasting them as a general brief against avarice and consumerism rather than a call for specific government interventions.

And finally, they have insisted on the difference between church teaching on faith and morals, and papal pronouncements on economic issues, noting that there’s nothing that obliges Catholics to believe the pontiff is infallible on questions of public policy.

I am not even an armchair economist, but it does seem that market based systems do end up benefiting the poor more than collectivist solutions. To my mind the problem we face is one of a required paradigm shift of the first order. The stereotyped economic debate still seems to be centered around certain naive assumptions: that capitalists are always money grubbing, greedy villains and that collectivists are always high minded, idealistic brothers and sisters of the poor.

We continue to believe the stereotypes despite the fact that the greatest philanthropists and benefactors to the good of the human race have been wealthy capitalists while the greatest monsters, murderers of the poor by starvation, displacement and ethnic cleansing have been communists.

Saying this is not to fall into the other extreme of imagining that all capitalists are therefore humane philanthropists and all left wingers are genocidal maniacs. Instead it is a suggestion that the only way through the impasse is to first of all shed the ridiculously simplistic stereotypes completely and search for a new way of thinking.

The new way of thinking is actually the old Catholic way of thinking and it falls back on the simple principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. The principle of solidarity is simply that no man is an island entire of himself. We are all a continent, a part of the main. We are our brother’s keeper. We are responsible for everyone else–not just ourselves.

The second principle avoids the big government solution. Subsidiarity is the principle that every problem should be solved at the most local level possible. When the two are combined we find that the poor are being ministered to not just with handouts from either big brother government or big brother philanthropist, but by a local person who should be a friend and neighbor.

Solidarity and subsidiarity go hand in hand. Remember the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The poor man Lazarus was lying on the rich man’s doorstep–and Dives the rich man did nothing. Is that because he thought social services were going to do his job for him because, after all, isn’t that what he paid taxes for? Did he think some philanthropist somewhere was going to help the poor fellow by establishing a homeless hostel?

When solidarity and subsidiarity go hand in hand we are also reminded of the responsibility of each individual to be involved. It is not just that the government or the philanthropist should be their brother’s keeper. I am required to be my brother’s keeper. If solidarity is true he is my brother. If subsidiarity is true, he is both my burden and my brother. I cannot remain uninvolved.

What is necessary therefore, is to get rid of blaming one group of people–either the evil communists or the evil capitalists. Instead there should be a proper partnership between local businesses, local government, local individuals and local communities to solve the social problems first on their own doorstep and then beyond. The large governments and large businesses should be in the business of enabling the local organizations and individuals to get on with their job.

This requires a radical shift in awareness for everyone, and it’s not like it hasn’t been thought through before. Samuel Gregg explains the foundation for a just and prosperous society in Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. His solutions are not just an old argument for unrestrained capitalism with a nod to “oh yes we must help the poor if we can…” Instead he outlines the foundations for a society that is built on the foundations of solidarity and subsidiarity with the aim not just of getting richer and richer, but of true human flourishing.

These are the new discussions which must continue if we are to move past the barren old stereotypes into a new understanding of economic and political synthesis which will help nurture a truly just and prosperous civilization.