November 26, 2013
Pope Francis attends his weekly General Audience in St. Peter's Square on September 18, 2013. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis attends his weekly General Audience in St. Peter’s Square in September. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Since Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis in March, the new pontiff has made headlines around the world for his emphasis on social and economic equality. The first major document of his papacy, released today, is no different. Though framed as a call for Catholics to embrace a new evangelization, much of “Evangelii Gaudium” is relevant to both Catholics and non-Catholics — especially the pope’s stinging critique of the unequal economy that we live in. He writes:

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. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. 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.

Trickle-down economics comes in for a hiding, as does the market:

In this context, 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 naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting…. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

Now, as Tim Fernholz and others have noted, Francis is far from the first pontiff to attack the capitalist system. But such a take is a bit too jaded. First, as Fernholz notes, Francis’s arguments are more specific, name-checking modern theories like “trickle-down” economics. Second, unlike many of his predecessors, Francis is actually practicing the humility he preaches, from giving up the opulent papal residence to using a 30-year-old Renault as his personal vehicle. And unlike all but his most immediate predecessors, the Web allows his calls for humility and equality to be broadcast directly to people around the world, rather than filtered through political and religious establishments. Francis’s approach is succeeding: There is evidence that the pope’s tenure has already seen many Catholics return to Mass (though the effect is mixed in the United States). Either way, the fact is that Francis is only saying what more and more people in the United States and around the world recognize: The increasing inequality of recent decades “cannot be the basis of hope for a better future.” Now if only our leaders would listen.

 

Gallery: Pope Francis’s acts of humility

James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.