“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, 1937
Regardless of whether one believes in one, twelve, or no God(s), the recent apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis—entitled Evangelii Gaudium—feels a bit like divine intervention. In a time where we’re attuned to hearing many media outlets report on the economy almost exclusively in terms of numbers—jobs created, jobs lost, stock prices, consumer spending, etc.—Pope Francis tosses a lighting bolt into an otherwise moribund discussion. Boldly declaring that we should not worship “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose,” the Pope’s exhortation sounds like it was distributed on Soviet leaflets rather than Vatican parchment. Ultimately, Pope Francis’ exhortation upends the conventional discussion of the economy from products to people and from dollars to dignity.
And when one focuses on souls instead of stocks, one cannot help but notice that our world is rife with extreme income inequality and widespread poverty. In fact, the Pontiff spends many paragraphs arguing that the global economy has produced such extreme income inequality precisely because we’re not focusing on people. The plight of the poor “fail[s] to move us,” Pope Francis exclaims, in part because of “our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” (emphasis ours). Consider the attention and sheer number of articles that are devoted to the sale of consumer goods, whether it be the latest smartphone or television. Rarely does the media consider who made the goods, and rarer still do they ask under what conditions does that person work and live.
Pope Francis takes us where others won’t: he urges us to think about people not products. “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” he says, to the point where “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” The notion helps explain how Oxfam can publish a report, to no tangible effect, indicating that the wealthiest 85 individuals in the world have as many assets as the 3,500,000,000 poorest.* Oxfam’s report made headlines worldwide, but those living in poverty witnessed no change in their quality of life from one day to the next.
Aware that reports such as those published by Oxfam perennially fail to alleviate the world’s ever-increasing income inequality, Pope Francis calls for a “vigorous change of approach” in our thinking about the global economy. The Pope’s exhortation is unwavering in its commitment to remedying income inequality: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation … no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills” (emphasis ours). By contrast, President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address said nothing about socio-economic inequality except to note that “[i]nequality has deepened,” which isn’t so much thoughtful analysis as regurgitation of obvious fact. President Obama never bothers to ask why income inequality has expanded in recent years, instead preferring to speak about the economy as if what truly powered it was “a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than [a] body of fellow citizens,” to paraphrase Lewis Lapham.
Pope Francis turns Obama’s SOTU on its head. Whereas Obama’s SOTU doesn’t mention “the poor” once, the Pontiff keeps the focus on the poor throughout—mentioning them in his exhortation over sixty times. In short, a close read of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium suggests a message that echoes what Occupy protesters spoke of in Zuccotti Park: people before profits. Don’t take our word for it—we’ll leave the last words to the Pope himself. “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” Pope Francis declares. “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 interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”
*That’s 3.5 billion people, or approximately half of the world’s population.