Catholic leader calls for an end to “business as usual”

Pope Francis declares global capitalism the “new tyranny”

The Pope wants his Church to be a voice for the poor – as he himself speaks out against economic ideologies that promote “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace” and reject the right of nations to protect people from exploitation by multinational corporations – but he needs our help.  Pope Francis decries global capitalism as a deadly “new tyranny” which imposes its own rules on the poor and powerless.

“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.”

Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel”  (paragraph 53)

NOTE:  I’ve included some “Pope tweets” in this blog.  Pope Francis gets five to twenty thousand retweets for each post like the one below. Follow him here!

Inequality is not inevitable, but rather the result of economic institutions designed by humans.  The World Trade Organization for example, the leading international organization supporting an “economy that kills,” has the power to prevent member nations from passing their own food safety rules, environmental regulation, and worker protection laws if they are believed to impede international trade.  Pope Francis writes:

“In this system, which tends to devour everything that 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.”

The market has become god and economics defines the norms of human behavior.  Gordon Gekko, the fictional character in the 1987 film Wall Street summed it up with the famous quote “greed is good.”  Unfortunately fiction has become reality as greed is accepted as normal in the business world today.  No international leader other than Pope Francis seems to be willing to say “no to business as usual.”

A globalized indifference to human suffering….

The Pope warns those of us who are ‘well-fed” however, that globalized indifference not only effects the poor but dehumanizes us all.  He writes;

“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others… a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor… The culture of prosperity deadens us.

The culture of prosperity that produces neither happiness nor health for the well-to-do is the result of an “idolatry of money” according to Pope Francis.  Without a belief in some “power greater than ourselves” (that would be God for some of us), the pursuit of money offers a sense of purpose – a reason for living.  But the end result is anxiety and despair for the financially prosperous and human suffering for everyone else.  This is “business as usual” today.

It is estimated that the 67 richest humans have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion (half of the human population).  Pope Francis believes that the rich and powerful have a moral responsibility for the increasing inequality created by radical global capitalism.  In a letter to British Prime Minister, David Cameron in June 2013, he writes;
“…every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential.”
The Pope’s critics quickly point to the positive aspects of global capitalism.  And of course, the global market has changed the lives of millions of workers in India and China by creating new job opportunities in the factories that sell cheap goods to the world.  But without worker protection standards, these jobs can kill.

The factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 and killed more than 1,000 workers in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry is an example of “an economy that kills.”  Worker protection standards hurt profits.  This is “business as usual” in much of the world.

Alternatives to “business as usual”

International financier George Seros explains in his book On Globalization that global financial markets and multinational corporations have come to dominate national governments over the past 25 years.  He says new international political agreements are needed to protect the common good because the development of global institutions for the common good have “not kept pace with the development of international financial markets.”   Soros understands that without a global moral framework, unfettered capitalism will continue to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

Economist Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, proposes that the “…prescription for controlling future inequality is a global tax on capital, which would hit the super rich the hardest.”   While his book is a best seller, it is not very likely that political leaders in the U.S. would vote for this sort of change without serious campaign finance reform!  The corporate lobbyists and campaign donors are much too powerful.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a global moral compass, as markets are amoral. The marketplace encourages people to act in accordance with their personal self-interest, which (in spite of claims otherwise by wealthy libertarians) without a larger moral code will never result in a healthy society.  Soros claims that “society cannot function without some distinction between right and wrong” and social organizations “beyond the merely economic” are necessary to guide human behavior.  This moral compass was once provided by religion.

Adam Smith believed in God

When Adam Smith described the economic theory of capitalism in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations published in 1776, there were two unstated generally accepted assumptions about the world – which are no longer true today.

  1. Commerce was personal, that is a buyer and a seller had a relationship that extended beyond an individual transaction.  Therefore, if either felt cheated it would effect their future relationship.  It was in nobody’s self-interest to cheat.
  2. The universe was a harmonious place, governed by a God and no action would be without its punishment or reward, in either this life or the next.  Therefore cheating was not in a person’s self-interest.

With these two assumptions about the world in place, it was less likely that capitalism would contribute to the exclusion and inequality described by the Pope.  Today, commerce is impersonal and there is no universal sense of right and wrong in business.  Cheaters (especially if they are “too big to fail”) don’t have to fear the penalty of their actions (in this world).  And if they don’t believe in God – well, they are free and clear in the next world too!  Hence, greed is good!

Into this situation, steps George Soros who claims that international cooperation is needed to provide a moral framework for the amoral marketplace.  And Pope Francis offers an ethical framework that would be familiar to Adam Smith – the teachings of the Church.  He suggests that the Christian Ethic “…leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.”  He declares that unfettered capitalism, which produces extreme inequality is not amoral but rather  immoral and clearly not according to God’s plan!

An absence of global leadership

In the absence of global political leadership, Pope Francis has become the world’s leading voice calling for an end to “business as usual.”   I can’t think of any other global leader who has spoken out for the poor in recent years.  Can you?

When the Pope first released the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (translated “The Joy of the Gospel“) in November 2013 naming the hegemony of the marketplace as a root cause of global suffering, there was a buzz in the media, a violent reaction from the defenders of global capitalism, and some interesting discussions within my own Church community.  But the buzz died away quickly as it is difficult to keep our attention on the problems of exclusion and inequality, perhaps because we have such busy lives.

For a Church that has done so much harm over the centuries, Pope Francis is indeed a blessing. You don’t have to be Catholic to love this man’s courage.  Of course, it hasn’t won him applause by the very conservative Catholic hierarchy and may even result in his early departure as Pope.  Although he has taken on corporate business interests, financial institutions, and the even the Mafia, it could be that his own Cardinals and Bishops will, in the end, do more to undermine his influence than any other force.  Maybe that is why he tweets “please pray for me.”

We need to pray for Pope Francis.  But we need to do more!  Inequality grows as the result of economic policies supported by political leaders, transnational corporations, financial institutions – and us!  When we purchase goods produced by those living in poverty, we reinforce the conditions that create an economy of exclusion and inequality and we allow buildings to collapse on workers in Bangladesh.  We benefit from the conditions that allow buildings to collapse, because good working conditions would mean our clothes would cost more money

Pope Francis asks us to SAY NO to “business as usual.” 

While fundamental change in how we practice capitalism is needed, at present our political system is designed to protect the wealthy.  We too are mostly powerless to affect substantive change.  But we can join with the Pope in saying no to “business as usual” by changing our own behavior.

Pope Francis is asking for our help.  If this courageous man is to be more than a “voice of one crying in the wilderness” we need to think twice before buying goods produced in sweatshops.  We need to move our savings out of corporate banks and into local credit unions.  We need to buy more food grown locally.

Finally, we need to pray for this Pope and for each other.

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I have had a 62-year “on-again/off-again” relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.  Pope Francis has given me hope that the Church can “be saved” and a willingness to explore some of the things that have been on my mind.  My last blog post for example, dealt with how the Church has tried to silence a voice of change from within, the American Nuns, and how they have responded with intelligence and grace.  For more posts relating to sustainability, food and farming, and higher education, and religion/spirituality please check my World.edu posts or my personal web page.

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