Pope: Change economy, respect the poor

Pope Francis, in his gripping pastoral letter “The Joy of the Gospel,” calls the Church to a new evangelization. Two of his challenges have special importance for the Philippines: his condemnation of “trickle down” or “growth without jobs” capitalism, and the importance he assigns to the poor in the life of the Church.

The Pope writes: “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.” [53] Later in the same number, he says: “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.”

It may be the same message as earlier popes preached, but it seems more grounded now in the personal experience of this Pope. He claims that present-day economics makes us indifferent to “the death by exposure of an old and homeless person.” He is angry when he describes food being thrown away in wealthy countries and cities when poor people are starving elsewhere. He also blames the lack of awareness on the self-centeredness that this economy creates in people. He says the poor are “outcasts” and “leftovers” in such a society.

The Philippine economy that produces wealth, but remains barren of jobs, is not an accident, but the deliberate choice of our politicians and business leaders. It can be modified.

What will Christian politicians and the business elite do when faced with the Pope’s criticism? The Pope asks for a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. “I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which [favors] human beings.” [58]

The Pope does not expect change overnight. He would be happy, I suspect, if political and business leaders made some effort, however small, to reshape the economy. The Pope’s phrase, “generous solidarity,” seems to say it all.

The second challenge of the Pope is for all in the country to appreciate God’s special love for the poor. “God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that He himself became poor (2 Cor 8:7).” The Pope says: “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the  sensus  fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the [center] of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” [198]

Did any other pope ever speak with such depth of insight and passion about poor people?

If politicians and economic experts must reexamine our national economic system, all of us must see how we can come closer to respecting, honoring and helping the poor as God wants. Pope Francis’ words remind us that hungry children are a desecration of God’s most exquisite work. Forced evictions, unemployed youth, the slums themselves cry out to God like Abel’s blood.

Can we make sure the poor will be treated fairly and justly in the reconstruction work in the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda”? Will the fishermen made homeless end up in decent housing and still be able to fish, or will they find themselves far from their old homes and the sea? Not all social problems are located in the South. What share will the homeless poor have in the 300 hectares that SM is allowed to reclaim in Manila Bay?

Will the fishermen and other poor people around Laguna Lake threatened by flood control projects be treated fairly? Will the government share its plans for them with them? Will there be genuine consultation befitting a democracy?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).

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