Bernie, Pope Francis, and the Moral Economy

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally with striking federal workers at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on East Capitol Street NE, September 22, 2015. The event was organized on the day Pope Francis, who is an advocate for low income workers, arrived in Washington. 

Bernie Sanders is on his way to the Vatican, with high hopes of a meeting with Pope Francis. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall during that conversation?

I imagine them bonding over the moral economy and their shared concern about the idolatry of money. Between them stands a rich tradition of Jewish and Christian teachings on economic life.

Sanders will be addressing the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences about the “moral economy.” But it’s no secret he’d love an audience with the pontiff. “It’s something I would be very proud to see happen,” Mr. Sanders told The Washington Post about the prospect of meeting Pope Francis. “I believe that the pope has been an inspirational figure in raising public consciousness about the kind of income and wealth inequality we are seeing all over this world.”

“The pope is coming along at the right point in history,” Sanders told a journalist from the Salt and Light Media Foundation. “The pope has not only talked about the dispossessed—children and the lonely who are pushed aside—but he has also raised the issue of worship of money, the idolatry of money—and questioned whether that is what life is about. He has a very radical critique of the hyper-capitalist world system.”

The U.S. presidential campaign has touched on many issues that are central to Catholic social teaching including poverty, immigration, the refugee crisis, the role of government, taxation, and more.

A couple years ago I co-authored a book about Catholic social teaching called, The Moral Measure of the Economy. Here are a couple talking points Bernie might find useful in his meeting:

1. The Common Good. The obligation to “love our neighbor” has an individual dimension, but it also requires a broader social commitment to the common good. We have many inadequate ways to measure the health of our economy: Gross Domestic Product (GDP), per capita income, stock market prices, and so forth. The moral measure of an economy, rooted in Catholic doctrine, is “How does the society treat the most vulnerable?” and, “Does economic life enhance or threaten our life together as a community?”

2. Economic Justice for All. The very nature of the common good requires that all members of a society be entitled to share in it, although in different ways according to each one's tasks, merits, and circumstances. For this reason, every government must take pains to promote the common good of all, without preference for any single citizen or civic group. As Pope Leo XIII, said: “The civil power must not serve the advantage of any one individual, or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all.” Public policies that worsen economic polarization, such as tax cuts for the wealthy, would fail this basic test.

3. Preferential Option for the Poor. Considerations of justice and equity demand that those involved in civil government give more attention to the less fortunate members of the community, since they are less able to defend their rights and to assert their legitimate claims. The first priority of public action should be to lift up those most vulnerable.

4. Solidarity. At the core of most great religious traditions is the understanding that we are “one body,” interconnected and interdependent. We are responsible for one another.  We not only have a duty to be responsible for ourselves, but our faith requires us to be responsible for others. As John Paul II, wrote in his encyclical letter, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,

Solidarity is an authentic moral virtue, not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.

Catholic social teaching requires that we stand in solidarity with those who are excluded and marginalized, especially immigrants, refugees, prisoners, and the poor. What does it mean, practically speaking, to stand in solidarity with the poor in today’s global economy? The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops suggest a five-step process that moves us from standing with the poor to taking action in solidarity: (a) Be present with and listen to the experiences of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed of our society; (b) Develop a critical analysis of the economic, political, and social structures that cause human suffering, (c) Make judgments in the light of the Gospel principles concerning social values and priorities, (d) Stimulate creative thought and action regarding alternative models for social and economic development, and (e) Act in solidarity with popular groups in their struggles to transform society.

5. Subsidiarity. Catholic teaching argues that government and other institutions should operate by the principle of subsidiarity, which calls for a decentralization of decision-making when appropriate. In essence, problems should be addressed as close to their source as possible. In his 1931 encyclical letter, Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI writes:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a graver evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help (subsidium) to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

Decision-making should be as close to those affected as possible, encouraging participation and discouraging distant and remote governance. This sounds like a case against big government, but it’s actually a principle for recognizing the importance of effective local government. 

6. Subsidiarity with Solidarity. Sometimes subsidiarity is misinterpreted in libertarian terms to mean “local control” or devolution of responsibility, but this would be inaccurate. As a Vatican statement observes, “Subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism.” As Mary Jo Bane writes in Lifting Up the Poor, a book about Catholic theology and poverty, “higher levels of civil society and government must take responsibility when lower levels cannot and do not. Neighbors provide care when families fail; local governments assume responsibilities not exercised by neighborhood groups, the federal government acts when state action is inadequate or inequitable.” Subsidiarity is not a substitute for solidarity. 

There are many ways that Bernie’s approach to issues embodies the spirit of Catholic social teaching. When Bernie told a national television audience, “when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt,” he is voicing the principle of solidarity.

“It’s very easy to turn our backs on kids who are hungry or veterans who are sleeping on the street, but I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t understand.” Sanders said. “That’s my religion. That’s what I believe in.”

Pope Francis would say “Amen” to that.

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