This is the last installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. It attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.” This third part addresses the meaning and centrality of that option.
In his critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it (reviewed in Part Two of this series), Pope Francis called explicitly for “structural change” in the world economy. He said, “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”
But what “structural change” does the pope have in mind?
Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ offer the answer. Their “preferential option for the poor” provides the guiding principle and turns the present economic order exactly on its head. This implies that if the present order is possible, so is its opposite.
That is to say that the present neo-liberal order is structured according to a “preferential option for the rich.” Its sponsoring question is how can we make sure that the banks, corporations, and 1% prosper? Economists explain such concern by various “trickle-down theories.” If priority is accorded the welfare of the rich, the theorists say, the wealth produced will trickle down creating a “rising tide that lifts all boats.” [The pope rejects such theories out-of-hand as historically disproven. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he even calls them homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59).]
By way of contrast, the pope’s “preferential option for the poor” begins at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?
Laudato Si’ goes even further. It expands moral concern beyond human beings to all forms of life. It asks how we can insure the survival of the planet in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.
None of this means abandoning market dynamics altogether.
It does mean, however, controlling them according to the principle some have expressed in the words, “as much market as possible and as much planning as necessary.” This means maximizing market forces, but controlling them as necessitated by prioritization of the needs of the poor including the environment – once again by the preferential option for the poor.
In practice this entails at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces.
Impossible you say? Not at all. To repeat: if economies can be structured according to a preferential option for the rich, they can be restructured to prioritize the needs and rights of the poor and the environment.
That’s the Global South hope and conviction Laudato Si’ embodies: another world is indeed possible.
Will Laudato Si’ have its desired effect? That, of course remains to the seen. However, it undeniably has in Pope Francis a powerful proponent.
That is, despite remaining Stalinist skepticism, Pope Francis might well be the most powerful man in the world. Certainly, he is the planet’s most influential moral leader. What empower him, of course, are not the military divisions in which Josef Stalin placed confidence, but his extraordinary consciousness of the unity of all creation expressed repeatedly in his every pronouncement and especially in his recent encyclical. What sets him apart from the Obamas and Putins of the world is his equally unusual courage, compassion, charisma, and credibility.
Additionally, the pope has surpassing constituency. He heads a community of 1.2 billion followers. And this does not even count the untold millions of non-Catholics who admire him and his thought leadership.
With such support, the powerful message of Laudato Si’, and his plans to bring that message to the U.N. and U.S. Congress in September, as well as to influence the Climate Summit in Paris next September, who knows what changes will result? Who knows how he will influence the U.S. general elections in 2016?
In other words, Francis may stand on the brink of surpassing the stature of Leo XIII and John Paul II in terms of changing the world.
Defenders of the old order are already shaking in their boots.