Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Unequal Distribution


“What do you think of Evangelii Gaudium?”

Not having read more than a few snippets, and having avoided the brouhaha that followed its release last November, I didn’t know what to say.

“Well, I know the Pope's a faithful son of the Church, which rules out his being a Marxist.”

My friend persisted.  “But, what do you think about his economics?”

“I haven’t read the document in toto, and I won’t think anything about them until I do.”

Now, having read and prayed over it, the first thing to say is that the document is not about political economy.  It “is not a social document” (184).

It is about the kind of Church Francis wants: a missionary Church, an evangelizing Church and, especially, “a Church which is poor and for the poor” (198).  It is longer by orders of magnitude than the dozen-or-so paragraphs he devotes to the economy.

In keeping with the example of Christ, and the uniform social tradition of the Church, Pope Francis exhorts Catholics to serve the poor, to extend them a preferential option, to think of them, to love and learn from them.  Amen, Holy Father.

As we descend from the Church’s undisputed domain, i.e., evangelization, into the realm of socio-economic opinions, the best way I can think of to address the Pope’s economics is by way of a thought experiment.

In its final part, entitled “Spirit-Filled Evangelizers” (275-280), Francis addresses the mysterious workings of the risen Christ and his Spirit. Acknowledging that it’s tough to keep one’s missionary fervor alive, he urges us to trust the Holy Spirit for nourishment:

“It is true that this trust in the unseen can cause us to feel disoriented: it is like being plunged into the deep and not knowing what we will find… Yet, there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills” (280). 

I would like to use the Holy Father’s observations about uncertainty and disorientation, following the promptings of the Spirit, and the need to eschew excessive planning and control as points of departure to discuss business and economics.


He is undoubtedly thinking of derring-do evangelical exploits such as the apostle Philip’s conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road to Gaza (Acts 8:26-40). An angel had instructed him to take that way, and the Spirit told Philip to go up to the Eunuch’s chariot.

This eunuch was a minister of Canda’ce, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure.  By the time Philip was done telling him about the good news of Jesus, he had baptized the eunuch.  Such was the beginning of Ethiopia’s conversion to Christianity.

Isn’t that also how business starts in some countries—in the ones where personal initiative is allowed to breathe freely.  Somebody gets a prompting, an idea in a garage, and follows it.  He looks for money, finds it, and bam!  An Apple Computers, or a Hewlett-Packard, is born.  

Suddenly, there is wealth, which funds future ideas, future births.

Unfortunately, aside from one grudging and conditional concession to the “noble vocation” of business (203), the Pope has little good, and much bad, to say about the current arrangement of the global economy.  

He sees inequality, structural injustices, and the idolatry of markets and money everywhere.  He even takes a shot at "success and self-reliance" (209).

His treatment of economics reminded me of the documentary, Inside Job (2010), which pilloried financial deregulation for throwing up to 15 million people into poverty again.  How common for free market economics to be pilloried for throwing people back into poverty without having been credited for pulling them out of poverty in the first place.

The Pope, for his part, identifies the origin of the financial crisis in “the denial of the primacy of the human person!” (55)  While that may be true, denial of the primacy of the person hardly originated with economics or finance.

His prescription: “decisions, programs, mechanisms, and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment, and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (204). 

By the time we get there, we are conceptually a long way from trust in the Spirit (or even in people’s basic decency (54)), and from “renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail.”

Let’s conduct that thought experiment, now, with respect to evangelization.  


I wondered what Evangelii Gaudium would look like if it addressed unequal evangelical results in the same way it does unequal economic results.  If it did, would the document encourage more, or less, missionary activity?

Consider that the Spirit may blow in Brunei but not in Bariloche; in Southeast Asia, but not in South America. European prayers for vocations may yield results in the Philippines, but not Rome.

Unequal apostolic results could transpire for many reasons. Missionaries in the Philippines might have the good fortune of gaining access to the nation’s Treasurer, like Philip did. Perhaps family structure is more conducive to mass evangelization in Bruenei than it is in the United Kingdom. Perhaps technological advances are marshaled to greater evangelical effect in Bejing than in Barcelona.

There could be a million reasons for inequality in apostolic outcomes--none related to injustice--including that the Spirit simply has reasons for it that we don’t understand.

Perhaps we won’t accept a simple answer, for instance, that some approaches might conduce more readily to favorable results than others. The answer might even lie in an entrepreneurial culture that rewards experimentation and success without punishing failure.

Imagine that Pope-Whoever overlooks the aforementioned potential causes and simply decries the unequal outcomes (193).  “Inequality, [he claims], is the root of social ills” (202).

His mother’s heart suffers at the lack of spiritual development in so many places when others are so evangelically rich; it bristles at perceived blaming of those who lack the results being gauged (60).

He regards this unequal distribution of evangelical results with trepidation, attributing the lack of spiritual development in one place to its superabundance in another (202). He views the hoarding of graces conferred as a grave injustice, as stealing from those whose integral development is not so complete (57).

At length, he identifies the actual cause of unequal apostolic success: unjust social structures (59).  

He prays for politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the unequal distribution of evangelical results to do something about it (205). Politicians are responsible for the common good, after all, whereas the zealous missionaries of Southeast Asia are merely concerned with their own particular good, and that of the souls they tend.

In our thought experiment, the heaped-upon missionaries object that they are merely following Jesus’s call to feed the hungry, to give the poor standing at their doors “something to eat” (49).  Surely, the Pope can’t be chastising them for being fruitful, or, alternatively, for committing fraud (148).  

Moreover, they protest, the benefits of their successful evangelization will flow to other parts of the world, including the impoverished areas, as those once evangelized become evangelizers and missionaries, in turn.

The Pope is wise to that defense, however: a crude and naïve trust in trickle-down theories that have never been confirmed by the facts (54).

In charity, because the Pope loves everyone alike (58), he points out to the successful missionaries that they are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality. They need to be more humane, noble, and fruitful, which will bring dignity to their presences on earth (208).

Concluding that this grave inequality calls for grand redistribution and structural change, a meeting is set with the President of a great power who professes to share the Pope’s concerns, and agenda—despite his aggressive devotion to pagan causes.

Gratefully, this is only a thought experiment.


Surely, some faithful sons in the above-depicted scenario might differ, in good will, about judgments made and courses exhorted, even while embracing the Pope’s vision of a dynamic, inclusive Church and world.  

Following the Pope’s counsel, they might even seek to dialog with him, to urge that freedom is a better path than planning and control, even if its workings are disorienting and uncertain, and the results of its application are unequal.

Whatever the outcome of my thought experiment, all believers could be comforted in the knowledge that the Church was speaking within her sphere of authority when addressing evangelization. Her opinions would enjoy not only the benefit of nonpareil expertise, but also the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Such assurances are unavailing, however, where the Church’s opinions enjoy neither of those crucial guarantees: in the culturally peculiar realm of political economy, for instance.

The Church speaks with moral authority when it addresses the needs of the poor and exhorts concerted charitable action.  It opines at the risk of mischaracterization or rejection when it identifies socioeconomic causes, and urges that the solution to their problems demands political restructuring of economic arrangements, whether local or global, for redistributive purposes.

That transcends moral theology.  The Church can infallibly proclaim universal truths on moral questions because all persons, everywhere, are the same in their beings.  Not so in their cultures.

Though not uncontested, America's is one whose political economy is constituted by democratic capitalism, a tri-partite division of influence and authority defined by limited, democratic politics, free markets and a pluralistic socio-cultural system.

When the Pope leaps from the “cry of the poor” and the “suffering of others” (193) to calling for politicians to “break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society” (205)--asking, “Why complicate something so simple? ... Why cloud something so clear?” (194)--I fear he is leaping over the sphere of civil society—intermediate institutions including family and the Church—which is where U.S. culture traditionally situates the primary responsibility for care of those in need.

Many people who, acting freely, and caring a great deal for others--many even responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit--built those walls that Francis exhorts us to break down.  Not everything erected through money and markets was built by the bad, for the bad.

Conversely, history is littered with economically hopeless structures constructed by zealous politicians in thrall to do-good impulses and the conceit that they knew better what everyone needed than the collective assessment of idiosyncratic, personal decision-making--i.e., the market--did.  America's political economy is designed to make that difficult.

The Holy Father manifests an exquisite sensitivity to cultural differences in other contexts.  For instance, “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history” (118).

I pray that he ceases to demand that we imitate modes of economic thought which Continental nations developed at a reactionary moment of their post-industrial experience.  

As the Holy Father, himself, commented, “[t]he message that we proclaim always has a certain cultural dress” (117).  To be sure.

Since he bypassed the opportunity in Evangelii Gaudium, I wish, hope and pray that Francis will also practice cultural sensitivity in future remarks regarding political economy.


In the real world outside of my thought experiment, Church leaders would celebrate the successes of missionaries without impugning evangelizers for enjoying them. It would hold them up as worthy of emulation, and brainstorm how their example might be duplicated elsewhere. Certainly, they wouldn’t criticize apostolic successes in one part of the world just because they are not duplicated elsewhere.

The Church would not seek to deter those who reap fruitful results where they sow.  It wouldn’t impede their continued development by conspiring to harness it for the supposed benefit of a common good.

I wish it would treat economics and wealth the same way.

I know that not everyone acting in the economic sphere is open to the promptings of the Spirit, not by a long shot.  Yet, the Pope warns that not everyone acting in the spiritual realm is either: those acting under the influence of spiritual worldliness, for instance (93-97).  

That doesn’t prevent him from counseling us to renounce planning and control, to trust the Holy Spirit and to follow his promptings in freedom.  

The Church's goal, it would seem, is to increase the number of believers who, following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, voluntarily serve the needs of others, including the poor; not to animate the political restructuring and redistribution of material goods.

If only there was a charitable, loving and inviting way for Churchmen to exhort generosity and sharing in matters of wealth and economics without acting “as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (47).

It might admittedly be pride on my part (and, if so, I ask pardon) but, with regard to political economy and the planetary disposition of wealth, it seems to me that the Church is a long way from finding its Christian, loving voice.

The world of my thought experiment would be deeply demotivating, rather than inspiring, to those sons of the Church aiming to serve it wherever it leads.  I fear that the same is true in the real world concerning Evangelii Gaudium’s treatment of economic matters.

I pray, then, for the Lord to guide our Churchmen, and politicians, to inspire us to the missionary goals that Francis has set, and to give them charitable words that serve the poor without bashing the supposed rich.  

I say, “supposed” because the rich will find ways to escape whatever new structures planners and controllers devise.  It will be the middle classes of the world, not the rich, who pay the price for Francis’s dreams (192).

No comments:

Post a Comment