Thursday, October 8, 2015

The President of the American Enterprise Institute: Pope Francis Wants Your Soul!

One might expect the president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to critique the message that Pope Francis delivered last month during his visit to the United States.  The AEI, after all, is in the business of promoting free enterprise and the Pope did not have too many positive things to say about globalization from the steps of Independence Hall.  Though Francis did not mention the word "capitalism" during his visit to the United States, he has been critical of it in the past.  

This morning I was reading some of Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") and came across this section:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

And this:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

In this context, 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 na├»ve 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. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

Arthur Brooks

But today at The New York Times Arthur Brooks, the president of the AEI, wrote an excellent op-ed piece celebrating Francis's "subversive message," supporting his defense of the poor, and embracing his criticism of materialism.  For Brooks, Francis's message of unity is ultimately a spiritual message. As he puts it at the end of the piece, "he is in a hunt for the whole human soul."

Here is a taste:

Look back a generation (or two or three) in our families, and we are almost all just riffraff with one direction to go: up. Americans tell with pride the stories of their parents and grandparents who — thanks to democracy and free enterprise — were able to work their way up out of poverty. The secret to American unity thus is not just giving alms to the poor. It is to remember that we are the poor.

As the pope surely understands, these facts are what make the Catholic Church in the United States unique. In Europe, the church was historically an institution of the powerful. In America, by contrast, the Catholic Church was established as the church of the outsiders. Throughout our history it has been the poorest of the immigrant groups — the Irish, Italians and Latin Americans — who represented the face of American Catholicism. Excluded from power in their countries, the poor opted to build their lives and churches here.

As our nation expanded and prospered, the Catholic Church became a source of social unity. Indeed, Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and was cited by Pope Francis before Congress, was attracted by the fact that the church in America was full “of all nationalities, of all classes, but most of all they were the poor.”

For Francis, unity also extends into the transcendental. He asserts that faith and human reason are inseparable, declaring that “unless you believe, you will not understand.” In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Francis significantly ups the ante, asserting that faith is nothing less than reason seeking cosmic meaning. He tells us that belief does not suffocate or diminish human reason, but rather reinforces it and imbues it with life.

Even more radically, the pope’s theology obliterates materialism by uniting natural and supernatural. As Francis directly challenged the congregation in one of his homilies in Cuba, “Do you believe it is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?” He emphatically does not mean this metaphorically. As a Catholic, he says that he believes that Jesus is factually present in the form of the Eucharist, and that how we treat the poor and vulnerable here on earth will have eternal consequences.

Francis’ secular admirers often stumble at his apparent preoccupation with evil. In an impromptu speech to schoolchildren in Harlem, he disconcertingly asked: “But who is it that sows sadness, that sows mistrust, envy, evil desires? What is his name? The devil.”

Some dismiss this as a clerical tic or South American eccentricity. It is nothing of the sort. The word “devil” comes from the Greek verb diabolos, meaning “slander” or “attack.” And “demon” comes directly from the Greek root meaning “to divide.” For Francis, happiness comes from unity, both with God and with one another. Unhappiness comes from division from either — which comes from the Dark One.

Many people around the world have found themselves attracted to the pope’s warm message of unity. And well they should be — unity is in short supply in our unhappy world today. But Francis is asking for more than a mass chorus of “Kumbaya.” He is in the hunt for the whole human soul.