Pope Francis will arrive in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, in his first visit to the United States. There is palpable excitement and anxiety surrounding his trip. The deepest angst is reserved for his appraisal of global capitalism. The Pope has criticized the pervasive and insidious greed of unbridled capitalism and “the unfettered pursuit of money [as] the dung of the devil.”
U.S. leaders like to trumpet the successes of American capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit. Many commentators have tried to absolve the U.S. from the Pope’s harsh critiques, suggesting that he doesn’t understand American capitalism or he’s referring to crony capitalism elsewhere.
However, these rationalizations blind us to the dark side of capitalism in which, in Pope Francis’ own words, “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
Unbridled capitalism places profits over people. The accumulation of extreme wealth it funnels into the hands of few elites is built at the expense of the majority. It becomes difficult to create bonds of community and solidarity in an environment of greater the inequality between rich and poor. Those living in poverty become invisible or dismissed as the problem.
Pope Francis has highlighted homelessness to distinguish capitalism’s throwaway culture from one of solidarity. The Vatican’s outreach in Rome to the homeless includes building showers, a shelter, handing out sleeping bags and inviting them to dinner in the Sistine Chapel. In Catholic social teaching, a society is measured by how it treats those who are most vulnerable. Persons suffering from homelessness live in a perpetual state of vulnerability.
While Pope Francis invites the homeless to dinner, cities across the United States have sought to criminalize their poverty. Since 2011, access to shelters and low-income housing has decreased amid a growing criminalization of homelessness. There has been a 60-percent increase in bans on camping in public; 18 percent of U.S. cities impose city-wide bans on sleeping in public; 27 percent prohibit sleeping in particular public places such as in public parks; 9 percent of cities even forbid feeding the homeless in public. In 2014, 33 U.S. cities increased restrictions or outright banned feeding homeless persons in public.
Homeless people are frequently subjected to disdain, mistreatment and violence. In August, a union representing the New York Police Department sergeants launched a campaign to shame the homeless. Police officers and the public are being encouraged to submit photos of “homeless people, criminal activity,” among other activities, to a website and Flickr account created for this purpose.
The explicit goal is to shame those living in poverty. It dehumanizes those suffering and treats them as criminals. Last year the New York City Rescue Mission, a charity that provides support and shelter for the homeless, created a video experiment to see if people walking past a homeless person would notice if it was a family member. No one noticed the homeless enough to recognize their own family, underscoring both their invisibility and our culture of indifference.
In one extreme case on Aug. 19, two men in Boston severely assaulted a homeless Hispanic man assuming he was in the country illegally. The assailants claimed that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s immigration policy inspired their attack. The incident made national headlines thanks to the politics involved. Many such attacks go unnoticed everyday. “Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live,” Pope Francis lamented in 2013, “those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised — they are no longer even a part of it.”
It is not just the homeless: Working families are also breaking under the weight of American capitalism. Pope Francis has recently criticized market economy for holding families hostage. He is right. The real value of the minimum wage has dropped 40 percent since 1947. Today, the average minimum wage worker is 35 years old, 48 percent are women and 27 percent have children. Long working hours, stagnant wages and economic pressures such as job insecurity and high living expenses are a threat to family life in the United States. Some 25 percent of mothers are forced to return to work only two weeks after giving birth. The United States is the only developed country without any guaranteed paid maternity leave.
Many aspects of the papal visit highlight the absurdity of capitalism’s exploitation. In Philadelphia, prison inmates and guards have hand-carved a chair for the pope’s visit. In New York, immigrant day laborers are building the altar for Madison Square Garden. These are not accidental selections, but mark the deep divide between capitalist societies that its victims among immigrants and prisoners, and the hope they see in Pope Francis’ mission. For Christians, this emphasizes the affinity between victims of today’s capitalist economy and the followers of another poor carpenter and prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth.
The Pope’s visit offers an opportunity to understand and acknowledge capitalism’s effect on the poor. In his speech to Congress and throughout his trip Pope Francis speaks is expected to call on all Americans to reject capitalism’s throwaway culture and build an inclusive culture of solidarity.
The U.S. must recommit itself to social justice by enacting policies and protections for the very poor. This includes permanent housing for the homeless, improved social safety net and expansion of low-income housing programs. Americans must also commit themselves to compassion, by treating the homeless with kindness and dignity.
Pope Francis is calling for a radical cultural conversion that places people and the Earth before profits. Guaranteed paid maternity leave would be one clear and easy place to start. Similarly, fast food workers around the country, who are demanding a livable wage, deserve greater protections. If the low cost of a hamburger and fries is more important than the person serving them, that is the throwaway culture of indifference. Pope Francis is calling on us to reject such practices in our personal lives and as a political community.