Before discussing the social movements theme, it is important to dismiss a myth about the Bishop of Rome. Because of several criticisms on capitalism stated by Pope Francis during his pontificate, specially the most recent stated in the Encyclical Laudato Si’ and in a speech on Bolivian soil to the Latin-American social movements (the was also his acceptance of a peculiar gift from Evo Morales, a crucifix in the shape of the sickle and hammer), many accuse the Pope of being a communist. This label has no basis whatsoever, as will be explained below.
Initially, it is important to be informed that the Pontiff does not see the comparison as an insult, since, despite considering wrong the Marxist ideology, he recognizes that he has met a lot of Marxists who were good people.
“Wrong”, says the Pope. The view of the Church against Marxism/communism toward history is notorious. In several Encyclicals and papal speeches, hard criticisms were not spared on the Marxist materialistic vision of history, the atheism inherent to the Marxist ideology, the religious persecution in “communist” countries, the suppression of private property, among many others factors.
However, few know (maybe because of less propaganda in the media) that there is also in the Church a history of criticism on capitalism and its faults since the times of the Rerum Novarum (1891) Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII (that defended worker’s rights, dignity at work, fair wage, among other things – in short, it established the social doctrine of the Church) that has deeply influenced the thinking of every Pope (some more, others less critical) since then. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, considered more of a conservative, has said that: “Although the world is sadly marked by ‘hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism,’ as well as by various forms of terrorism and crime”; and also has written the following passages in the Caritas in Veritate Encyclical (parts bolded by me here and in every following quotation):
Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.
Hence, when He criticizes the faults of capitalism (the current system), Francis does not corrupt, but embrace catholic doctrine. Only those with an extremely narrow and Manichean view of the world can brand him a communist. Nonetheless, some might question: “Why doesn’t he also harshly criticize communism?” Well, the Berlin Wall has fallen, and, outside conspiracy theories, there is no real risk of a communist rise in the western world (one cannot see in significant part of the left wing in developed countries, for instance, the defense of the private property abolishment or the socialization of the means of production).
Dismissed that meaningless “accusation”, let us analyze the Pope’s speech to the Latin -American social movements. Basically, He criticized the excesses of the current system that: exclude people from social life; deny their dignity; impose a profit at any cost logic; and that has been severely damaging the environment – in short, a unbearable system: “farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable”.
The Bishop of Rome also said that “Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home” and the following words to those social movement leaders:
I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels.
Undoubtedly strong words, but that are in line with the ideas of Popes in the last 125 years, as seen next.
Pope Leo XII in the Rerum Novarum Encyclical established, like explained by the great British-catholic writer G.K Chesterton (1874-1936), that:
The existing concentration of wealth in the Capitalist “laid upon the labouring millions a yoke little better than slavery.” (2) That we must not escape from this by the further concentration of Communism, as it denies even the natural forms of property, freedom and the home. (3) That, while wage-earners are entitled to combine and even to strike, on certain conditions of justice, it would be better if “the poor so far as possible should become owners”; that is, small capitalists or possessors of the means of production
Continues Leo XIII:
So strong and convincing are these arguments that it seems amazing that some should now be setting up anew certain obsolete opinions in opposition to what is here laid down. They assert that it is right for private persons to have the use of the soil and its various fruits, but that it is unjust for anyone to possess outright either the land on which he has built or the estate which he has brought under cultivation. But those who deny these rights do not perceive that they are defrauding man of what his own labor has produced. For the soil which is tilled and cultivated with toil and skill utterly changes its condition; it was wild before, now it is fruitful; was barren, but now brings forth in abundance. That which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it. Is it just that the fruit of a man’s own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by anyone else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.
By the way, Catholics like Chesterton, inspired by the Encyclical, followed the slogan “Three acres and a cow”, defending the spread of property and auto subsistence for all; that reminds a little bit that three “L’s” (labor, lodging, land) mentioned by Pope Francis.
In that line, all following Popes, like Pius XI in the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931, about the then 40 years since Rerum Novarum):
- In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.
- This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.
- This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience.
- This accumulation of might and of power generates in turn three kinds of conflict. First, there is the struggle for economic supremacy itself; then there is the bitter fight to gain supremacy over the State in order to use in economic struggles its resources and authority; finally there is conflict between States themselves, not only because countries employ their power and shape their policies to promote every economic advantage of their citizens, but also because they seek to decide political controversies that arise among nations through the use of their economic supremacy and strength.
- The ultimate consequences of the individualist spirit in economic life are those which you yourselves, Venerable Brethren and Beloved Children, see and deplore: Free competition has destroyed itself; economic dictatorship has supplanted the free market; unbridled ambition for power has likewise succeeded greed for gain; all economic life has become tragically hard, inexorable, and cruel. To these are to be added the grave evils that have resulted from an intermingling and shameful confusion of the functions and duties of public authority with those of the economic sphere – such as, one of the worst, the virtual degradation of the majesty of the State, which although it ought to sit on high like a queen and supreme arbitress, free from all partiality and intent upon the one common good and justice, is become a slave, surrendered and delivered to the passions and greed of men. And as to international relations, two different streams have issued from the one fountain-head: On the one hand, economic nationalism or even economic imperialism; on the other, a no less deadly and accursed internationalism of finance or international imperialism whose country is where profit is.
John XXIII, the “Good Pope”, in the Encylical Mater et Magistra (1961) – he also mentions speeches by his predecessor, Pius XII.
- Experience suggests many ways in which the demands of justice can be satisfied. Not to mention other ways, it is especially desirable today that workers gradually come to share in the ownership of their company, by ways and in the manner that seem most suitable. For today, even more than in the time of Our Predecessor, “every effort must be made that at least in future a just share only of the fruits of production be permitted to accumulate in the hands of the wealthy, and that an ample sufficiency be supplied to the workers.” (29)
- It is not possible to give a concise definition of the kind of economic structure which is most consonant with man’s dignity and best calculated to develop in him a sense of responsibility. Pius XII, however, comes to our rescue with the following directive: “The small and average sized undertakings in agriculture, in the arts and crafts, in commerce and industry, should be safeguarded and fostered. Moreover, they should join together in co-operative associations to gain for themselves the benefits and advantages that usually can be gained only from large organizations. In the large concerns themselves there should be the possibility of moderating the contract of work by one of partnership.” (30)
- As Our Predecessor Pius XII so rightly affirmed: The dignity of the human person “normally demands the right to the use of the goods of the earth, to which corresponds the fundamental obligation of granting an opportunity to possess property to all if possible.” (33) This demand arises from the moral dignity of work. It also guarantees “the conservation and perfection of a social order which makes possible a secure, even if modest, property to all classes of people.” (34)
- Our predecessors have insisted time and again on the social function inherent in the right of private ownership, for it cannot be denied that in the plan of the Creator all of this world’s goods are primarily intended for the worthy support of the entire human race.
Pope Paul VI in the Populorom Progressio Encyclical (1967):
- Today we see men trying to secure a sure food supply, cures for diseases, and steady employment. We see them trying to eliminate every ill, to remove every obstacle which offends man’s dignity. They are continually striving to exercise greater personal responsibility; to do more, learn more, and have more so that they might increase their personal worth. And yet, at the same time, a large number of them live amid conditions which frustrate these legitimate desires.
- Granted all this, it is only too clear that these structures are no match for the harsh economic realities of today. Unless the existing machinery is modified, the disparity between rich and poor nations will increase rather than diminish; the rich nations are progressing with rapid strides while the poor nations move forward at a slow pace.
- At the same time, social unrest has gradually spread throughout the world. The acute restlessness engulfing the poorer classes in countries that are now being industrialized has spread to other regions where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. The farmer is painfully aware of his “wretched lot.” (9)
Then there are the flagrant inequalities not merely in the enjoyment of possessions, but even more in the exercise of power. In certain regions a privileged minority enjoys the refinements of life, while the rest of the inhabitants, impoverished and disunited, “are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of the human person.” (10)
Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.” (22) These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.
No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life. In short, “as the Fathers of the Church and other eminent theologians tell us, the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good.” When “private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another,” it is for the public authorities “to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups.” (23)
24. If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.
Vatican II affirms this emphatically. (24) At the same time it clearly teaches that income thus derived is not for man’s capricious use, and that the exclusive pursuit of personal gain is prohibited. Consequently, it is not permissible for citizens who have garnered sizeable income from the resources and activities of their own nation to deposit a large portion of their income in foreign countries for the sake of their own private gain alone, taking no account of their country’s interests; in doing this, they clearly wrong their country. (25)
Pope John Paul II was a famous critic of communism (just like every Pope, he rejected it as a solution for the world) and perhaps the most sympathetic to capitalism. Nonetheless, that did not stop him from writing passages like those in the Centesimus Annum Encyclical (1991), that honored the 100 years of Rerum Norarum:
Many other people, while not completely marginalized, live in situations in which the struggle for a bare minimum is uppermost. These are situations in which the rules of the earliest period of capitalism still flourish in conditions of “ruthlessness” in no way inferior to the darkest moments of the first phase of industrialization. In other cases the land is still the central element in the economic process, but those who cultivate it are excluded from ownership and are reduced to a state of quasi-servitude.71 In these cases, it is still possible today, as in the days of Rerum novarum, to speak of inhuman exploitation. In spite of the great changes which have taken place in the more advanced societies, the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing. In fact, for the poor, to the lack of material goods has been added a lack of knowledge and training which prevents them from escaping their state of humiliating subjection.
Furthermore, as she has become more aware of the fact that too many people live, not in the prosperity of the Western world, but in the poverty of the developing countries amid conditions which are still “a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”, she has felt and continues to feel obliged to denounce this fact with absolute clarity and frankness, although she knows that her call will not always win favor with everyone.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, besides the aforementioned Encyclical, said in a 2007 Angelus:
Starvation and ecological emergencies stand to denounce, with increasing evidence, that the logic of profit, if it prevails, increases the disproportion between rich and poor and leads to a ruinous exploitation of the planet.
Instead, when the logic of sharing and solidarity prevails, it is possible to correct the course and direct it towards an equitable, sustainable development.
Joseph Ratzinger even dared to state in an essay for “Firstthings” in 2006 that: “In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.”
To be fair, essential to say that all those Popes criticized communism in those Encyclicals and denied it as some form of solution to social problems. They defended the right to propriety, but did not stop there. Francis, like his predecessors, but, perhaps in a more energetic and determined way (besides obvious charisma), wishes that property becomes truly universal and that everyone may have the “3 L’s” (labor, lodging, land), that human dignity prevails, so we can finally eliminate what the wise Argentinian calls the “globalization of indifference” in the world today.
In the flight back to Italy, following his recent trip to Latin America (July. 2015), Francis explained, by answering a question about his speech to social movements, that he just restated the social doctrine of the church and that it was not a political, but simply a catechetic fact. As we can see in this article, He is right. Thus, let us follow the Pope and “Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age.”