When Pope Francis becomes the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, in September, many Catholic theologians and activists expect that he will focus on rising global economic inequality rather than on the hot-button cultural issues that often dominate U.S. politics.
The pontiff continues to disappoint Catholic women pressing for equality in the church, reproductive rights and allowing birth control, and his recent endorsement of a Slovak referendum to ban marriage and adoption by same-sex couples has dismayed supporters of LGBT rights. But most papal observers don’t expect to see those issues addressed in Francis’ congressional speech. Instead, they predict that the pope will use his critique of the current global economic order to challenge his audience on the role of government in alleviating inequality as well as on immigration and climate change.
The central message of Francis’ papacy has been that “income and wealth inequality in our world is the source of social ills,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying group best known for its Nuns on the Bus campaigns challenging income inequality and pressing for immigration reform. “Until we remedy that, we won’t have any sort of real peace or good community.”
Francis’ view on the global economy, say Catholic theologians, is deeply rooted in Catholic social justice teaching that demands care for society’s most vulnerable to promote the common good. Francis’ critique of global capitalism, laid out in detail in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” decries the “economy of exclusion.” That phrase, said Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies in moral theology at St. John’s University in New York, is based on his belief that “we’re in a state in which when someone isn’t ‘useful,’ they simply don’t even exist.”
The pope also uses the phrase “throwaway culture” to describe how people, like consumer goods, are used and cast aside, said Clark. He has used the phrase to critique rampant consumerism, abortion and neglect of the elderly. If he addresses abortion on Capitol Hill, she said, it would likely be through such a lens.
The Rev. David Hollenbach, the university chair in human rights and international justice in the theology department at Boston College, expects Francis to highlight the fact that the United States is “an extraordinarily privileged country with an enormous amount of wealth, especially at the very top.” Hollenbach added that the pope will likely further emphasize that the United States “has a very important role to play in shaping international economic policy in ways that could work to alleviate and advance further the reduction of poverty worldwide.”
Out of 535 members of the current Congress, 164 are Catholic, and 81 of those are Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. Catholic activists such as Campbell and John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a Democratic-leaning advocacy group, have been critical of Republican economic policies, particularly those of House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan, both Catholics.
“The pope is not going to offer detailed policy proposals, but I would expect him to be unambiguous about the moral dimension and the reality that so many are left behind in our global economy,” said Gehring. “Speaker Boehner and the Koch brothers won’t find endorsement of their policies from this pope.”
Some conservative American Catholics have claimed that free market economic policy is supported by the Catholic concept of subsidiarity, which calls for decision-making at the lowest, most local level of government possible. But more liberal theologians say that rather than call for less government intervention, subsidiarity, as part of a broader, holistic Catholic social justice tradition, requires government intervention to alleviate inequality.
Subsidiarity, said Clark, does not mean “smaller government is better.” She argued that was “simply a misreading and a misdefinition of Catholic social teaching.” Instead, “the flourishing of all levels is the priority,” requiring the state to step in if a local community is unable or unwilling to promote economic justice, she said.
She dismissed conservative claims that Francis’ critique of capitalism is drawn exclusively from his experience in Argentina and that he therefore does not understand the American economy. “Pope Francis knows very well what capitalism does and doesn’t do without government interventions,” she said.
‘The pope is not going to offer detailed policy proposals, but I would expect him to be unambiguous about the moral dimension and the reality that so many are left behind in our global economy.’
program director, Faith in Public Life
Francis’ critiques of economic and political power are not directed solely at Republicans.
The economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued that Francis’ message is “fundamentally subversive of prevailing attitudes in the corridors of American power, whether on Wall Street or in Washington.” He is the director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. While Francis is in the U.S., he is expected to attend the U.N. summit on Sustainable Development Goals, which will address eliminating poverty and promoting environmental sustainability.
When the pope addresses Congress, said Gehring, “Plenty of politicians on both sides of the aisle will be squirming in their seats.”
But Francis does see politics as an “honorable vocation,” Gehring added. The pope will likely remind legislators that “public service is about serving the common good, not their own interests or party agendas.”
To some, though, it is anathema that the pope known for meeting the marginalized where they reside would make an appearance in a seat of global power. In The National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, a Catholic commentator known for his liberal views on economic issues, wrote that he is “wary” of the pope’s visit. The “optics,” he argued, seem “all wrong, such a specifically political setting, and a powerful one too,” given that the pontiff typically visits “peripheries where Pope Francis is most comfortable and where he has repeatedly said he wants the church to be.”
But Campbell said she hopes the pope will use the occasion to remind the powerful that “governments have a responsibility to ensure that all of their citizens, all of their residents have all the basics they need to live in dignity.”
Francis, she said, “is very clear that the market is just as human as the rest of us and greed enters in. It’s the role of government to check greed,” through regulations covering areas such as banking, food safety, airline safety and other matters.
In the end, said Hollenbach, “Mr. Boehner may regret that he invited him.”