Popes are not merely the head of a Church. Because they are the spiritual leader of a billion people, popes also have a role to play in shaping and forming global order. And historically, there have been popes who have used this position to change the direction of world events. Such a pope was Leo XIII who defined the modern social teaching of the Church. Workers, he insisted, had the right to organize. The world must not be dominated by the primacy of capital. Rather, there must be a balance between the rightful concerns of economic investment and human needs. Another such pope was John Paul II, a native of Poland, who provided an important witness to human freedom in the latter stages of the Cold War.
Pope Francis may prove to be another pope like these two, someone who offers the possibility of redirecting the path of the world at large. He certainly took an important step in that direction with his address to the European Parliament on November 25, 2014.
But let's take a look at the substantive vision he was setting forth. It was a message directed at Europe but it is equally applicable to the entire developed world.
He proposed first that Europe must rededicate itself to the principles of human rights and human dignity. He stressed that rights are intrinsic to the person and that they arise from our very being, our very status as human beings. Persons should never, therefore, be seen as objects, as means to ends. All of this has been said many times before -- by other popes and by secular philosophers going back into the 18th century.
What is fresh about the Pope's teaching is the way in which he used this concept of rights to call upon Europe -- and by extension, the world -- to a renewed respect for each and every person. That respect comes from recognizing that rights do not exist in isolation. Human beings are not "monads," in the Pope's words, isolated, autonomous, purely private economic decision-makers. Rather we act, in all we do, in relationship with others. Rights are, in other words, not strictly speaking individual, but relational.
Pope Francis then applied this insight to the dangers inherent in a purely economic approach to the human condition. Society, he asserted, can at present only see the economic dimension of persons. Everything is reducible, in the modern analysis, to cost vs. benefit. "To our dismay," he declared, "we see technical and economic questions dominating political debate, to the detriment of genuine concern for human beings."
As a result, human beings have become disposable -- the old, the infirm, the enfeebled, the terminally ill -- they are "abandoned and uncared for." They are "discarded with few qualms." No one has any time or use for them. They do not produce, they do not have bargaining power, they are not economic players, and so they are shunned and mistreated. Pope Francis has often used the expression "throwaway" society to describe the modern western condition, and in these passages he spelled out the roots of this malady.
This insight, then, brought him around to his criticism of European society. It seems, he pointed out, that Europe no longer has the energy or desire to welcome immigrants in its midst. "We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!" Europe must once again open its doors and, furthermore, must extend itself generously to "assist the countries of origin in their own social and economic development." Again, this is a message that should reverberate in the ears of Americans, as our own country contends with its nativist right-wing.
Even more ominously, Pope Francis warned that Europe must reduce growing human alienation within its borders. Its institutions have lost the capacity to sympathize with individuals. And as populations lose confidence in their fundamental institutions -- of governance, of education, of commerce -- there is the risk that they may turn "to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today."
Democracy must be revitalized, he urged, through an appreciation that unity is not uniformity. The great risk to democracy, he explained, is that economics will telescope different and diverse human societies into an oppressive and homogeneous whole:
The true strength of our democracies -- understood as expressions of the political will of the people -- must not be allowed to collapse under the pressure of multinational interests which are not universal, which weaken them and turn them into uniform systems of economic power at the service of unseen empires.
Politics, in other words, must take priority over economic efficiency. It is the role of citizens to tame economic forces and subject them to human values. A more profound criticism of contemporary American politics has yet to be uttered.
Humanity itself must be renewed, the Pope declared, and that is done through a renewal of education. "Education cannot be limited to providing technical expertise alone." The Pope thus confronted the pervasive but wrong-headed mantra of career counselors everywhere to pursue only those degrees that lead directly and tangibly to economic pay-offs. But the Pope is no enemy of scientific or technical training. In practically the next breath he encouraged European governments to provide further support for education in fields such as "alternative sources of energy." But, he stressed, only through knowledge of the humanities can "young people today... look to the future with hope instead of disenchantment."
He made two other points worth noting. Why, he asked, has the economic malaise, the downtown, the recession persisted so long? Again, he lays the blame at the feet of economic policies that destabilize the working class. Workers can only flourish, they can only raise families, provide for loved ones and contribute to the building of a better, more just society if they have "stability and security" in their own lives. "The time has come," he announced, "to restore dignity to labor by ensuring proper working conditions."
Yes, this was said to the European Parliament. But it deserves repeating in the halls of the incoming Congress. Economic recovery does not come through increased shareholder value, or the financialization of the marketplace, or give-backs to the one percent, but through worker confidence. Restore prosperity and stability to the working class, the Pope as much as pronounced, and you restore a healthy economy.
Finally, the Pope insisted, the world itself needs renewal. We have not been given the world to use and exploit as we wish. Rather, we have been charged to serve as good stewards of a world that is not ours to ruin and destroy. "We need to love and respect nature," he emphasized. This means, of course, the gentle and modest use of natural resources. But for Pope Francis, regard for the world means that we must never lose sight of the human dimension. Human beings are part of nature, he stressed, and the allocation of resources at the present moment violates that nature: "It is intolerable that millions of people around the world are dying of hunger while tons of food are discarded each day from our tables."
Sometimes there are religious leaders who can step beyond confessional boundaries and become a voice for the improvement of the world. And in this speech, Pope Francis took an important step in that direction. (But, your Holiness,a word of advice, don't pick on grandmothers the next time out).