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A Pope’s Plea for the Commons, Democratic Governance and Social Justice



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Pope Francis recently issued a passionate and far-ranging 137,000-word Encyclical that, according to some reports, is among the longest such teaching documents in Church history. The Pope ranged widely in this effort—entitled Laudato Si or On Care for our Common Home—to address a diverse array of topics, including the fact that environmental degradation and global warming are continuing apace.[1] He also touched on urban planning, banking regulation and Trinitarian theology, among other subjects. By embracing the scientific consensus concerning global warming early in the document, Pope Francis angered many American Roman Catholics who have aligned themselves with the view that such is not really occurring and is instead the product of misguided or misanthropic intellectuals or, as GOP presidential aspirant Jeb Bush recently opined, the result of the “intellectual arrogance” of the scientists sharing the results of their studies.[2] In fairness to Bush, he was merely echoing the dogma of the primary voters of his Party. None of the dozen or so aspirants for the Republican Party presidential nomination thus far has embraced climate change as an overwhelmingly human-created reality since the ideological right and conservative media, to whom their party and potential victory are in thrall, has made such a stance a partisan litmus test. However much it strains credulity, these dozen or so individuals have all gone along with the view that human beings are not principally responsible for degrading the planet or its atmosphere or causing the extinction of species each day by dint of their short term foci and unwillingness to address the full environmental costs of their embrace of consumerism and marketization. Apart from this early section of the Encyclical, which has received disproportionate media attention, Francis’ overarching goal in the document was to identify the underlying factors creating our current ecological and governance crises worldwide. Despite the fact that Laudato Si will likely be known as Francis’ “environmental” Encyclical, it is that broader analysis that I find penetrating and most significant about his effort.

The Pontiff views the present growing global ecological crisis as the consequence of Western “throwaway” cultures, corporate greed and a self-wrought and profound imbalance in the political economies of those nations caught up in consumerism and marketization for their own sake.[3] These socially debilitating choices have been spread throughout the world via trade and too often unbalanced and/or ineffectual international agreements and institutions. Here is how he put the matter in one section of On Care for our Common Home:

What happens with politics? Let us keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity, which grants freedom to develop the capabilities pres­ent at      every level of society, while also demand­ing a greater sense of responsibility for the com­mon good from those who wield greater power. Today, it is the case that some economic sectors exercise more power than states themselves. But economics without politics cannot be justified, since this would make it impossible to favour other ways of handling the various aspects of the present crisis. The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the in­clusion of the most vulnerable members of so­ciety. For ‘the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favour an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportuni­ties in life.’[4]

In a passage that neatly describes a key overarching trend in U.S. politics in recent years, Francis observed:

Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and envi­ronmental degradation. It is to be hoped that they can acknowledge their own mistakes and find forms of interaction directed to the com­mon good. While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable.[5]

As if evidencing the Pope’s concern, GOP lawmakers particularly have blamed the 2007 economic crash on a President who had nothing to do with it while arguing for less, not more, government regulation of the firms whose leaders’ persistent calls for deregulation and whose wildly risky investment behavior brought ruin to many and nearly a fresh Depression. Indeed, many Republican lawmakers today routinely decry any government economic regulation as constituting an undue claim on “job creators,” and rail against governance generally as the equivalent of an embarrassing and outdated old buggy in the garage that prevents the market from securing the magic it otherwise would provide. Francis exposes this sort of thinking for the dangerous fantasy it is and argues eloquently for a proper balancing of politics and the economy in which the first is always architectonic. This strikes the reader particularly as it amounts to a devastating critique of the current situation in America and many other nations in which many lawmakers daily denigrate self-governance and the poor and vulnerable in the name of a market-centered conception of individual freedom.

As examples of this propensity, one might cite Ronald Reagan’s famous presidential inaugural declaration that government represented the nation’s greatest problem, 2012 GOP presidential standard bearer Mitt Romney’s infamous argument that 47 percent of the nation’s population simply do not count as they will never be anything but “dependent,” Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent stereotyping and outrageous assertion that Mexico’s migrants are rapists and GOP presidential nomination seeker Rand Paul’s equally contemptible decision to meet with Clive Bundy, the Nevada rancher who saw fit to place armed militia in sniper positions to “defend his property” (owned by the United States) against government officials whose authority he does not recognize. One might well ask why Paul, a sitting U.S. Senator, believed this consultation was appropriate and further, what he sought to accomplish electorally with it.

Francis points up the uncomfortable reality that the political and economic challenge now confronting the West has only grown as large numbers of its leaders, often backed by corporate interests, have embraced an ever more thorough marketization of their societies. These officials increasingly count self-governance and human dignity as neither appropriate, nor necessary. All that counts, in their view, is market success and the supposed liberty to press one’s claims in the market place. In this ideologically framed view, those who fail and the many vulnerable groups who cannot “play” in this game are blamed as personally weak or inadequate and themselves alone the cause of their status. That is, in this view, these individuals may be unfortunate, but they remain undeserving social detritus. Here is how Pope Francis framed the imperative to change this orientation:

If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that cer­tain mindsets really do influence our behaviour. Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to ad­vance, with the help of the     media and the highly effective workings of the market.[6]

And again,

Not everyone is called to engage direct­ly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations, which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, rela­tionships develop or are recovered and a new so­cial fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity with a story, which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of sol­idarity, which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home, which God has entrust­ed to us.[7]

For more than three decades now, and with growing intensity, our nation has embraced a view of politics that suggests it is somehow unnecessary and that all that is significant in our personal and collective lives is bound up in our individual roles in the market place. Those who do not succeed in the market have frequently been declared unworthy and inequality has grown to a virtually unprecedented degree, even as lawmakers pretend citizens do not need to make tough choices to ensure their freedom and futures and the polity can, with impunity, discriminate against and assail minorities and those less fortunate among them as they proceed. Pope Francis’ profoundly insightful and challenging Encyclical should remind all lovers of freedom and self governance that these cannot endure without citizens willing to recognize they live within broader national and global societies and how they live their lives each day has repercussions for untold numbers of people beyond themselves. The Pope’s passionate argument for a rebalancing of our political economy and his frank recognition of the implications of unchecked consumerism for democracy and for freedom is most welcome. The Pontiff reminds those who will listen, irrespective of their status as Believers, that the governance and ecological crises the nation and world now confront are the offspring of a deeper erosion of a shared conception of society as commons. Citizens have voluntarily created that turn by a blinkered acceptance of marketization. One need not argue that democracy and capitalism cannot co-exist to contend that a profound change in the balance of these vital forces in favor of democracy now constitutes a moral and ethical imperative. Pope Francis is surely right on this count and this discerning Encyclical represents a clarion call to arms for just such action. One may hope it will stir long-lived soul searching among those too willing to see the market as magical panacea for all social challenges and for the preservation of liberty. Such introspection is essential if our nation and the world are not to lose democratic governance and true freedom to the Faustian bargain such ideological thinking represents.


[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, Accessed June 27, 2015.

[2] Carrie Dan, “Jeb Bush blasts ‘Intellectual Arrogance’ in Climate Change Debate,” NBC News , Accessed July 2, 2015.

[3] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, p.14.

[4] Pope Francis, Laudato Si,, pp.143-144.

[5] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, p.145.

[6] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, p.157.

[7] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, p.168.

Publication Date

July 12, 2015