What Pope Francis Means When He Talks About The Ethics Of Care

The pontiff spoke about creating a culture of care during his U.S. visit.
Pope Francis talked about ethics of care during his recent trip to the U.S.
Pope Francis talked about ethics of care during his recent trip to the U.S.
Tony Gentile/Associated Press

During Pope Francis' historic U.S. visit last week, he spoke repeatedly about the need -- in making policy, in strengthening the Roman Catholic Church, in everyday interactions -- to create a culture of care.

"A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk," he said before a joint meeting of Congress. Legislative activity, he continued, "is always based on care for the people."

At the United Nations, the pope argued that just financial practices and robust oversight of finance are necessary to "care for the sustainable development of countries and should ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence."

"It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities," he said at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. In his remarks to Congress, Francis repeatedly invoked The Golden Rule, saying that the practice of treating others as we would want to be treated ought to inform US policy on immigration -- particularly policies on the admission of refugees -- and capital punishment.

The heavy emphasis on care and on The Golden Rule appeared to be allusions to care ethics, a school of philosophical thought that is rooted in feminism, and draws inspiration from nuns throughout history who have devoted their lives to caregiving. Care ethics also questions the traditionally dominant ethical frameworks that emphasize the individual over the collective, and value the experiences and voices of traditionally vulnerable and low-status members of society.

To learn more about care ethics and about how they might have informed the case the pope made this week, we spoke with Brown University Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Anna Bialek, Ph.D. Her work focuses on the philosophy and ethics of love and vulnerability in Christianity. This is an edited version of our conversation:

Was it your sense that the pope is familiar with care ethics, or draws inspiration from it?

The ethics of care now has many branches, but it began as an effort to consider the work of women in traditional caregiving roles in social and philosophical discussions that have often ignored them. Early ethicists of care suggested that women’s experiences as mothers, wives, nurses, teachers, nuns, and in other caregiving roles could offer a “different voice” to discussions dominated by traditionally male experiences and pursuits of independence, individual autonomy and self-fulfillment. Care might then serve as a model for everyone, the movement suggests, complementing individualist pursuits, correcting the misperceptions and denigrations of people serving in caregiving roles, and illuminating the support that caregivers themselves need and deserve.

When Pope Francis talks about care, as in the Laudato Si’ encyclical released last spring, subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” he usually seems to be drawing on a different tradition of thinking about care that begins from Jesus’ teachings on love and has developed in Christian discussions of the theological virtue of caritas, often translated as “love” or “charity” in English. Caritas refers to a love that is given regardless of whether or not it's merited -- love that is not a response to someone’s beauty or greatness, but is freely given, often in excess of any deserving qualities, as a parent loves a child or God is believed to love His creation, in the Christian tradition. According to Christ’s teachings, Christians must love in this way: loving not only the great and the good but also the wicked, the less fortunate and all others who may seem “undeserving” of love by other standards.

Pope Francis’ references to care during his visit U.S. have shown the capaciousness of the concepts of care, love, and charity in Christian thought. He has referred to the responsibility to care for the environment -- our “common home” -- for immigrants, the poor, the sick, the disabled, children and the abused. For our own souls and spiritual health amidst a culture of consumption, and more. His elevation of “care” as a key term in these speeches suggests the influence of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who often preached of love in everyday life, of the environment and the poor and the less fortunate. “Care” has a similar connotation of everyday, humble work.

What should people know about the ethics of the care school of thought?

The ethics of care began as a movement of feminist thought that emphasized differences between men and women, or at least differences between the traditional experiences of men and women. While men’s voices and experiences had dominated philosophical and social discussions, women’s experiences in caregiving roles could not be well described, understood, or valued by the vocabulary and norms developed through a “male” perspective. Early ethicists of care sought to recover women’s voices to learn from their engagement with caregiving in particular.

Care, they argued, provides a significant alternative to ethics that emphasize individual development and independence. In individualist ethics, my interactions with others often appear only to threaten my own progress and well-being. In an ethic of care, by contrast, my development and well-being is oriented toward others, in that I become a better person insofar as I learn to care well, participating productively in relationships toward the flourishing of all. From the perspective of care ethics, in other words, my interactions with others appear as opportunities for ethical development and the enhancement of my life and others’, instead of appearing primarily as threats to what I pursue for myself.

The ethics of care began as a movement of feminist thought, but is now engaged for a range of concerns including the roles and treatment of the disabled, elderly and sick, the environment, race relations and many forms of economic and social inequality. In the thirty years since the movement began, care has become a widely accepted and utilized term in philosophy. Many of the lessons of care ethics have played important roles in public policy as well, such as in the development of the ADA [Americans With Disability Act] and the Violence Against Women Act.

How does it relate to the Golden Rule?

Care ethics is generally compatible with the Golden Rule, but it reminds us of an important reality in its pursuit: that while we try to do unto others what we wish done unto us, there are often asymmetries in our circumstances that should affect the meaning of that pursuit. It means something very different for a child to follow the Golden Rule in his or her relations with a parent than for the parent to follow it in relations with his or her child. The parent behaves not only as he or she might want someone to behave to him or her now, as an adult, but how he or she would want someone to behave, or have behaved, toward him or her as a child. While the reflexivity of the Golden Rule -- “behave unto others as one wishes them to behave unto you” -- might seem to suggest that we can relinquish responsibilities to others where we do not take ourselves to need such support, caregiving reminds us that at different moments in life, we require different kinds of aid, and we must understand the Golden Rule to refer not just to what I wish from others right now but throughout my life, and even beyond my own experience. Although I may never experience the inability to hear or see, for example, I should treat the deaf and blind as I would want to be treated were I deaf and blind, not as I am now, a person with relatively healthy hearing and sight. Care theory encourages us to think of the conditions and needs of others as a guide to our actions, instead of focusing only on our own experience, interests and desires. This approach is important in carrying out the Golden Rule, which could otherwise serve to justify the abandonment of others in need so long as one doesn’t see oneself as similarly needy -- far from the spirit in which it is usually offered.

Pope Francis’ words and actions have illustrated this dimension of the Christian interpretation of the Golden Rule well, often in a direct critique of modern ethical and political systems that take the ideally independent, physically and mentally able, and economically privileged adult as the “normal” subject of any maxim like the Golden Rule. If we must only do unto others as we wish them to do unto us as independent, healthy, and economically privileged adults, it is hard to understand why we should offer assistance to the poor, sick, disabled, and less fortunate. Shouldn’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, as we often hear? If I don’t need government assistance, the argument goes, so why should I pay for the government to assist them? The Golden Rule, understood through the lens of care ethics, reminds us to consider how we would want to be treated if we were in similar conditions, not just how we would want to be treated in our current condition. This interpretation seems to be Francis' as well.

Lots of people have argued that the pope's progressivism has left women behind. How would someone trained in a feminist ethics of care approach that question?

A big part of the criticism of the pope’s positions on women has referred to his emphasis on women’s "different gifts" -- of care, nurturing, and so on -- as the justification for their "different" positions in the church. Critics have often pointed out that the "different"positions of women in the church are not only different, but lesser, than the positions of men. It has also been noted that there is an incoherence in the pope’s naming of these “feminine gifts” as the reason for women’s different and lesser roles in the church, while simultaneously calling for the male clergy to practice care and compassion in their work. If women already have the "gifts" of care and compassion, critics argue, why not make them priests? And why relegate such “feminine genius,” as he and others in the church have called it, to lesser ecclesial roles, when the pope himself has emphatically practiced such virtues throughout his time in the highest position of the ecclesial hierarchy? These criticisms align well with the feminist ethics of care, which argues that women’s caregiving should not be used to justify their subordination to men, but should be adopted as ethical models for both men and women.

Pope Francis has also been criticized for his emphasis on the differences between men and women altogether. By naming a “feminine genius” and using it to justify the unequal treatment of men and women in the church, such critics argue, the pope has suggested that women are naturally more capable in some areas than others, a difference that should not be fought but observed by maintaining different roles for men and women in society and the church. Though he honors the gifts of women, in other words he reinforces women’s separation and subordination by honoring them as different in this way.

The feminist ethics of care emerged from a strand of feminist thought called difference feminism that also emphasizes the differences between men and women, and argues for the elevation of women in society without assimilation to or mimicry of traditionally male experiences and attributes. The ethics of care has been frequently criticized for this heritage and its remnants in the movement on similar grounds as I described in relation to the pope: that emphasizing difference can justify unequal treatment by suggesting that women should play certain roles and not others, based on supposedly natural, feminine virtues and inclinations. However, many authors in the ethics of care have emphatically denounced these sorts of claims, and have suggested that the “difference feminism” in which they are interested refers to the fact that men and women have traditionally held different roles, such that we have learned to associate care and nurturing, for example, with femininity, while we associate independence and autonomy with masculinity. By recovering women’s experiences in caregiving roles, caregiving might be recovered from its understanding as a “feminine gift” to be available for women and men alike. In this way, the feminist ethics of care might again participate in the critique of Pope Francis' statements about women, though some critics of the ethics of care might see both Francis and care ethics as participating in a dangerous emphasis on difference.

However popular he might be among some progressives, the pope is still the head of an explicitly patriarchal institution. Does that conflict, or is it in keeping, with the ethics of care?

The feminist ethics of care has developed largely in opposition to patriarchal institutions and systems of thought, and so the patriarchy of the church would not be in keeping with that element of the ethics of care. However, there are strands of thinking in the ethics of care that advocate a form of equality between men and women that is not explicitly opposed to the kind of patriarchy found in the church, insofar as men and women can play different, but potentially equal, roles. Some ethicists of care, for example, might agree with Pope Francis that the caregiving roles of women could be sufficiently privileged and recognized within the church that its explicit patriarchy would be less objectionable. Pope Francis’ emphatic support for women religious leaders would bolster such a claim. More generally, however, the feminist ethics of care would promote a recognition of caregiving by both men and women that would align with Francis’ advocacy for these virtues and actions, but would reject his maintenance of the male priesthood and a lack of female participation in major leadership roles -- and the accompanying inequalities of pay, job security, recognition, and much else.

What are some instances of organized religion, particularly Christianity, practicing a feminist ethics of care?

The ethics of care has often been put into practice best by religious organizations, which have sought to care for the vulnerable and dependent where society and government has left them behind. Church organizations that offer assistance to the disabled, the sick, the economically disadvantaged, children and the elderly could all be described as examples of a practice of care. They see themselves as responsible for helping others even where there is no promise of getting anything in return, whether some form of repayment, reciprocity or mutual advantage. In this way, they follow the example both of caritas and the caregiving traditionally practiced by women as mothers, sisters, and wives: They offer love and aid not in response to whether the recipients deserve it, but in response to their need, and without regard for what the lover/caregiver will receive for having loved and cared in these ways.

From soup kitchens to women’s shelters to economic assistance, religious organizations are deeply engaged in works of care that have deep resonances with the feminist ethics of care. As a strong supporter of these works of the church, Pope Francis might then be seen as a strong supporter of the ethics of care, if not its feminist message and aims.

The pope has argued that we need to be aware of the impact of global challenges -- most notably climate change and environmental damage -- on the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. Where do vulnerability and marginalization come into an ethics of care?

Vulnerability and marginalization are key categories in the ethics of care, as they designate some of the populations to which caregivers are most responsible. The ethics of care proposes that those who can help should, in recognition of the fact that we all depend on others during at least some parts of our lives, and many of us depend on others for all of our lives. The especially vulnerable and marginalized -- “the least of these,” as the pope has said -- should be a priority of our attention and work, since they require the most care.

Ethicists of care such as Eva Feder Kittay have argued that we should build our society and government by taking their cases as paradigmatic: by starting from the radically vulnerable, dependent subject instead of the ideally independent, autonomous subject. A society and government oriented toward the radically dependent can then account for the less dependent by simply doing less for them, while societies and governments that begin from the independent individual have more difficulty responding to the needs of the dependent, vulnerable and marginalized. They have difficulty accounting for the work of caregiving, as well as justifying the allocation of resources to the dependent.

Both ethicists of care and the pope have argued strongly for a reorientation of our perspective and policies toward the most dependent and in need of care. For the pope, this is a demand of Christian love, a pursuit encouraged by Jesus and exemplified by God’s love for His creation. For the feminist ethics of care, it is a response to the reality of dependence in the human condition: To the inadequacy of an ethics and politics that assumes an independent subject, when we are all, at least as infants and often at other times as well, dependent on others for our survival and development. Though very differently motivated, however, both the pope’s teaching and the feminist ethics of care urge all of us to consider what we can do for the vulnerable and dependent, remembering that we too are vulnerable and dependent, and that we must serve others as we would want to be served in their condition, not in our own.

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