At the end of April, Pope Francis tweeted, “Inequality is the root of social evil.” He then expanded on that statement a few days later in a talk with U.N. officials in Rome. In addition to calling for redistribution of wealth, he asked the U.N. to address “structural causes of poverty and hunger, attain more substantial results in protecting the environment, ensure dignified and productive labor for all, and provide appropriate protection for the family.” Conservatives immediately named these comments Marxist and socialist.
In her Huffington Post article, Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite argues this is not Marxist or socialist, but Christian. I agree. Pope Francis reminds us of the encounter between Jesus Christ and the rich tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19: 1-10. Zacchaeus had his conscience awakened by Jesus and chose to move toward the justice of economic sharing. The Pope thinks the extreme economic inequality alive in society today can change if politicians and citizens make radical changes to our free market system.
Zacchaeus is not an isolated Biblical story. Jesus’ ministry addressed wealth inequality in Mark: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'” Or in Luke: “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”
In addition to Scripture, Pope Francis is leaning on a long tradition of Catholics calling for economic justice in the face of economic violence. The USCCB have published some beautiful, powerful statements on economic justice. Their framework includes:
- The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
- All economic life should be shaped by moral principles. Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person, support the family and serve the common good.
- A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.
- All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security.)
- All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.
- All people, to the extent they are able, have a corresponding duty to work, a responsibility to provide the needs of their families and an obligation to contribute to the broader society.
- In economic life, free markets have both clear advantages and limits; government has essential responsibilities and limitations; voluntary groups have irreplaceable roles, but cannot substitute for the proper working of the market and the just policies of the state.
- Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action where necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs, and pursue justice in economic life.
- Workers, owners, managers, stockholders and consumers are moral agents in economic life. By our choices, initiative, creativity and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life and social justice.
- The global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences. Decisions on investment, trade, aid and development should protect human life and promote human rights, especially for those most in need wherever they might live on this globe.
Pope Francis believes that the current inequality is society is not natural, but the result of a myriad of human ethical decisions that can be reversed by adjusted human ethical decisions. He is not calling citizens and politicians to Marx, but Scripture and tradition to stand up against the economy of exclusion that marginalizes people.