For Christians, peace is always a timely topic, but especially so now, as the 12 days of Christmas unfold. The Christmas narratives themselves tell the birth of Jesus bringing the promise of “peace on earth,” and on January 1 the church also observes World Day of Peace. In addition, Christmas 2013 ended the 50th anniversary year of Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical “Pacem in Terris.”
Pope Francis thus finished his first calendar year in office by issuing a message (dated January 1) entitled “Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace.” This document, together with Francis’ November message “The Joy of the Gospel,” offers a broad view of this pope’s vision for the world, as well as a powerful challenge to the world’s leaders.
One consistent theme emerges from these documents: peace is not possible using the current political and economic models that dominate world affairs. In this, Francis echoes every previous pope of the last 50 years. But if he (and they) are right, it means that the price of peace is to reject those models and replace them with something better. But who among our leaders is willing to do that--or even suggest it? In short, we must ask: who among them really wants peace on earth, and is willing to pay the price?
Specifically, Frances proposes that we will have to pay for peace in two ways. First, we will have to reverse inequality. Second, we will have to establish a culture of fraternity.
Inequality. In The Joy of the Gospel, Francis calls inequality “the root of all social evils,” and argues that peace will not be possible as long as inequality continues:
Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence…This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root…Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve…In the end, a peace which is not the result of integral development will be doomed.
To be concrete, Francis argues further that our current system is unjust “at its root” because of its blind-faith belief that free-market growth will solve our social ills:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
In light of this, the pope calls for urgent reforms to our current models:
The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed…As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.
Fraternity. In his January 1 message, Francis is equally clear that fraternity is essential to peace:
A lively awareness of our relatedness helps us to look upon and to treat each person as a true sister or brother; without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace…Fraternity generates social peace because it creates a balance between freedom and justice, between personal responsibility and solidarity, between the good of individuals and the common good.
He refers once again to the danger of living in a world marked by “the globalization of indifference,” and cites Benedict XVI on the paradoxical challenge posed by the new globalized economy: “Globalization, as Benedict XVI pointed out, makes us neighbours, but does not make us brothers.”
Francis laments that “contemporary ethical systems remain incapable of producing authentic bonds of fraternity,” and cites the Biblical story of Cain and Abel:
The story of Cain and Abel teaches that we have an inherent calling to fraternity, but also the tragic capacity to betray that calling. This is witnessed by our daily acts of selfishness, which are at the root of so many wars and so much injustice: many men and women die at the hands of their brothers and sisters who are incapable of seeing themselves as such, that is, as beings made for reciprocity, for communion and self-giving.
Only by fraternity, Francis argues, will we outgrow inequality and poverty. Noting the need for policies which can lighten an excessive imbalance between incomes, Francis invokes a teaching that has been part of Catholic tradition for seven centuries:
One also sees the need for policies which can lighten an excessive imbalance between incomes. We must not forget the Church’s teaching on the so-called social mortgage, which holds that although it is lawful, as Saint Thomas Aquinas says, and indeed necessary “that people have ownership of goods,” insofar as their use is concerned, “they possess them as not just their own, but common to others as well, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as themselves”... In this regard I would like to remind everyone of that necessary universal destination of all goods which is one of the fundamental principles of the Church’s social teaching. Respect for this principle is the essential condition for facilitating an effective and fair access to those essential and primary goods which every person needs and to which he or she has a right.
Once again, this leads Francis to conclude that our current models must change:
The succession of economic crises should lead to a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles
All this provides much food for thought.
For one thing, Francis is the first pope from the third world, where the gap between rich and poor, and the absence of a stable “middle class,” has been widespread since the colonial era in both Latin America and Africa. Francis himself is eyewitness to such inequality, for until his election he lived and worked in the notorious slums of Buenos Aires. Thus his condemnation of inequality strikes close to his home.
But it also strikes close to our home too. For among all advanced industrial countries of the so-called “first world,” the U.S. has by far the greatest inequality--hence the now-familiar references to some Americans as “the 1%” and to the rest of us as “the 99%.” In this, the U.S. resembles most third world nations more than it resembles its peers in Europe and Japan. This is not because we never had a middle class, but because the real income of most Americans has been falling since the 1970s, while a small percentage have enjoyed astronomical increases in income.
Yet if anyone suggests aggressive measures to redistribute income, cries of “socialist!” And “Marxist!” explode on the airwaves, the Internet, and in the press. What the new pope is making crystal clear is that his call for reform is rooted, not in political theories or parties, but in centuries of Catholic tradition.
In fact, it every pope in the last 50 years has decried growing income gaps. Even during the Cold War, pope after pope called for less obsession with East-West conflicts and more concern about North-South relations - - since the prosperity of the first world came largely at the expense of poverty in the third world.
The call for fraternity is also deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. Catholic social doctrine has long taught that the common good trumps private interests and profits. Christians have always believed the gospel notion that we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. We believe that if privileges exclude others, then privilege must be rejected. We believe that love of neighbor is our second commandment, and is “like the first” (love of God). We have always believed that the poor are blessed, and that caring for the weak is a hallmark of authentic Christian faith.
We Americans are proud to proclaim ourselves the world’s champion of “freedom,” but Pope Francis is saying that this is not enough to create peace. Freedom can allow us to exclude others, to fail in brotherly love, and to promote competitive “survival of the fittest” systems that create winners and losers (Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street depicts the excesses this can produce).
Ironically, the pope’s view reflects neither Marxist-socialist perspectives nor America’s one-eyed focus on freedom. If we must find a political partner, recall that the French Revolution proclaimed not only “Liberty” but also “Equality” and “Fraternity.” Without arguing the merits of that revolution and its legacy, it reflects this pope’s conviction that freedom untempered by equality and fraternity cannot bring us peace on earth. Francis is first and foremost an evangelist, not a politician. But Catholic social teaching has always carried political implications. And the politics imbedded in Francis’ statements so far are quite clear, especially when it comes to committing ourselves to a realistic program for peace.
First, Francis has positioned the Catholic Church as the largest anti-capitalist voice in the world. Second, he has positioned the papacy as the one public office capable of commanding a global audience for his inspiring vision. Third, he has challenged us to embrace fraternity and equality as the essential foundations of a peaceful world.
Practically speaking, this means that peace on earth will only come if we alter the current capitalist model to reverse inequality and restore concern for the common good. And it means placing concern for others above self interest. This is precisely the plea Francis makes for the world’s leaders:
I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world!..I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.
The question is: if this is what it takes to get Peace on Earth--who wants that?
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2014