12/20/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

The Pope and Economic Development

Now that the new pope has just been named TIME Magazine's person of the year, it is time, I think, that we take at least a quick look at what he is saying, especially regarding the world's economic order, especially in his latest document issued toward the end of November.

While not exactly a formal "papal encyclical" spelling out some aspect of church teaching, this ninety-some page document is termed "an Apostolic Exhortation", which I guess might be thought of as a papal pep-talk which ranges over a whole spectrum of subjects -- so many in fact that one could suspect that he was making a "to do" list for some time before he actually became pope. But tying all these subjects together is one over-arching theme. That theme is evangelization, the Church's missionary vocation to spread the Gospel or "good news" preached by Jesus, part of which is liberation not just from sin but from everything else that weighs down human society or oppresses human life.

The pope sees one of these forces of oppression, perhaps the major one, as being an unjust economic order which has, as he sees it, has consistently discriminated against the poor and disadvantaged, not just in the poorer nations south of the equator, but in whole segments of the more developed part of the world. It is this situation, which he saw first hand in his own country, that is the primary breeding ground for the hopelessness and despair, the epidemics of drug-dependency and violence, homelessness and hunger that occur not just in the urban slums of Buenos Aires. This situation is repeated not only in the cities of the developed world, but also in the rural wastelands of central Asia and Africa, Haiti, and in other places almost too numerous to count.

The pope does not mince words as to what he sees has gone wrong. In fact, (in paragraphs 54-57 of Chapter Two) the official English language translation singles out such terms as "trickle-down theories", "free market" and other catchwords that have led to, "a globalization of indifference", a "culture of prosperity", "idolatry of money" and "the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose." So "While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few." The cause of all this is "a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system" which he says "originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!" Not only that: "Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and rejection of God."

Nor is this all that the pope has to say on the subject. In paragraph 59, he warns that "...until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence." And he adds "If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death." And he should know, as he witnessed first hand the violence, terrorism (from both sides of the struggle), and the thousands of mysterious "disappearances" engineered by the military dictatorship in Argentina during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Is the pope about to offer a specific solution, a blueprint for a just society? Not directly, at least at this point. And why should he, since practically everything the Church has had to say on the subject of social ethics or morality based on the concept of "the common good" has been spelled out quite clearly over the past 120 years by a series of papal encyclicals of beginning with that of Pope Leo XIII and including just about every pope since then, most recently Benedict XVI. It is not the job of the pope or bishops to construct a just economic order but the job of the members of the Church in general, the "laity", those who hold the power and have the responsibility of shaping the society within which they live.

Which brings us back to the overall theme of this "Apostolic Exhortation": that all Christians, by the fact of their baptism, have been commissioned to be "evangelists" or "missionaries". Each Christian is charged with bringing the Gospel or good news of the arrival of "the Kingdom of God" to those among whom he/she lives, not so much by preaching, but simply by showing love and compassion to those in need and even more, by helping to shape society in such a way needless needs cease to exist. In other words, the pope is challenging not just Catholics, but all Christians, to take seriously the words they say most every day in The Lord's Prayer -- "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."