“I am not Marxist,” declares Pope Francis, responding to denunciations of his recent papal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Extremist critics, ever vigilant for any whiff of political heresy, put the pontiff on defense, labeling his remarks on the “new tyranny” of unfettered capitalism a Marxist demonization of wealth. To the paranoid, everything smacks of communism. Fear drives this criticism, the same fear preventing meaningful immigration reform.
Pope Francis exhorts politicians to guarantee “dignified work, education and health care” for the least among us and address structural causes of economic inequality as current economic structures exclude the poor, and more egregiously, the undocumented immigrant poor. Critics cite the “failed” history of trickle-down collectivism and redistribution of wealth while conveniently ignoring the upward redistribution of wealth: corporate welfare.
Papal detractors are wrong. He isn’t referring to mere material inequality but rather equality of opportunity: work, education and health care are not material goods but rather conditions that empower people to acquire goods. There is no real economic freedom in capitalism when all cannot fully participate. Pope Francis points out that we must get at the root of social problems — true economic justice doesn’t require more capitalism but rather education; transform welfare into education-fare.
Education brings hope to those weary of exploitation and stagnation. The value of capitalism is not to ensure people freely enjoy the fruits of their own labor but rather to make it possible to attain the fruits in the first place — hence, the pope’s exhortation to guarantee education. People can never be productive when they have no hope of advancing beyond exploitative menial labor.
Citing our “obligation to the poor,” the pope implores politicians to craft policies that truly help the poor. Joy — mentioned 104 times — is his message’s keyword, not Marxist propaganda. He invites people to propose and implement systems that promote human dignity, especially for the poor. In fact, he states it isn’t his responsibility to devise specific socio-economic solutions to accomplish these ends.
If capitalism is supposed to unleash creative forces, it must also be tempered by some restraint and compassion. Any solution to the inherent problems of capitalism (with its contradictions of unrestricted competitiveness, exploitation and profit maximization) essentially boils down to more capitalism, which is doomed to failure. The absolute autonomy of free markets has supplanted the gospel of joy.
Capitalism’s goal of creating profit empowers fear-mongering egos to tell us that there isn’t enough to go around. The pope cites the metaphor of the glass spilling over in trickle-down economics explaining how modern capitalism has failed: the glass just keeps getting bigger, so it never spills over.
Today’s unfettered capitalism is no longer the model our forefathers intended; special interests and crony capitalism have infected it. Undocumented immigrants can never hope to compete in or openly complain about economies governed by laws of competition and survival of the fittest; robust capitalist economies rarely benefit the poor whose lack of education or legal status prevent them from equally participating.
President Jose Mujica of Uruguay decries the automatization of the market (doing what the market says), reflecting Pope Francis’ call for moral limits on freewheeling economies that have supplanted God. This is capitalism’s great sin, which is why the least among us, undocumented immigrants, need a just reform now, this year. The critic’s response: more platitudes about how hard work yields success.
Recall John Henry, a poor Appalachian miner who raced a steam engine to dig a tunnel and was victorious, but died in the process. Victory brought affirmation of human dignity, not financial reward. This simple tale reflects the heart of Pope Francis’ message, not Marxism.
Teresa Swenson, daughter of Italian immigrants, is an ESL adjunct at SLCC and GED in Spanish coordinator at St. Therese Catholic Church in Midvale.