Sunday, 6 December 2015

Pope Francis on Income Inequality


Wherever Pope Francis goes, his popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike is obvious in the immense crowds lining the streets to see the Pope.

He is perhaps the most vocally pro-worker Pontiff in history. His support for workers’ rights and the labour movement can be traced to his assertions that the present economic system is morally flawed and unjustly excludes far too many people.

In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope’s first major Apostolic Exhortation, On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World[1], he discussed the inequality so common in today’s economic system.

In his Exhortation, Pope Francis essentially argues a proper socio-economic system will help all citizens to realize their potential. The current system, however, is not a proper system. Rather, what we have is a rigged system that falls short of the basic task of assisting all citizens. Instead, the present system actively supports the oppression and exclusion of the poor from society:

"Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape."

It’s not hard to see the Pope is speaking to very real issues under the current system. No matter whether it’s in the developed or the developing world, income inequality is apparent. Some people enjoy extreme wealth while the majority scrapes by. Some hail the extreme wealth of the few as a positive. The familiar argument being that the better the “job creators” make out, the better we all become.

But like most of us who live in the real world, Pope Francis is not convinced by this. He turns a critical eye on the current system, which has so vigourously sought to tout the elusive benefits of trickle-down economic theories:

"some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power…"[2]

The Pope goes on to note that the present system is focused on prosperity. On its own, that may not be a bad thing, but this focus tends to blind people to the suffering of others. When the sole focus is prosperity, those who are not involved in the prosperity are pushed to the margins or removed from consideration altogether. As stated by Popw Francis: "The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."[3]

As a partial solution to the growing problem(s) of economic inequality and social exclusion, the Pope advocates financial reform which would require the wealthy to assist the poor, where money would serve rather than rule the people.

For money to serve rather than rule, organized labour is a clear solution. Solidarity and the communal struggle for improved working and living conditions could protect people from social exclusion and prevent the deadening the Pope notes is a symptom of the current culture.

In July, 2015, the Pope gave a speech to grassroots organizations in Bolivia in which his support for unions can be presumed. In arguing for a more equal distribution of wealth, he said:

"Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere             philanthropy. It is a moral obligation."[4]

In other words, Pope Francis espouses positions supportive of workers and of economic justice issues that unions defend. Unions have long engaged in the struggle to prioritize the health, safety and dignity of all workers against the greed and economic inequality of political and economic systems that favour the employer above the workers.

Like unions, Pope Francis has recognized that the needs of workers are of pressing importance to counterbalance the damaging effects of the new economy, which would dehumanize workers and exclude others from society altogether.

No matter a person’s religious or political leanings, Pope Francis presents us with value systems that are worthy of consideration. As AFL-CIO, President Richard Trumka stated on the arrival of Pope Francis to the U.S. earlier in 2015:

"His message of inclusion, economic justice, and social progress transcends party and            represents the best of humanity."[5]

How the world will respond to the considerations Pope Francis raises, remains to be seen. One certainty, however, is that the Pope’s message of a more equitable economy which protects against exclusion, exploitation and oppression is a message that is likely to be welcomed by working men and women the world over.

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