Apocalyptic and Utopian: On Pope Francis’ Bolivian Manifesto

The Pope’s July 9th address in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, described how terrible things are in the world and how idyllic they can be

Pope Francis speaks at the second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz

Pope Francis speaks at the second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I have seen firsthand a variety of experiences where workers united in cooperatives and other forms of community organization were able to create work where there were only crumbs of an idolatrous economy. I have seen some of you here, recuperated businesses, local fairs and cooperatives of paper collectors are examples of that popular economy is born of exclusion and which, slowly, patiently and resolutely adopts solidary forms which dignifies it. How different this is than the situation which results when those left behind by the formal market are exploited like slaves.” — Pope Francis, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, July 9, 2015.

I.

Once Pope Francis arrived in Latin America, in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay, he was on what we call in English “a roll”. His rhetoric was elevated and passionately eloquent. He was not “explaining” by giving reasons, but “exhorting” by moving passions with stories and cases. It was a “bottom-up”, not “top-down”, call to action—action first, thought later. His claim is to be the voice of the peasant, the barrio dweller, the farmworker, the outcast, the exploited, and those who have little or nothing. The Pope has minimal patience with intellectual theories, excuses, or delays rooted in the human condition. He speaks with an urgency that implies that “there is no tomorrow”.

Pope Francis’ address to the Pontifical Catholic University in Ecuador (July 7) had little of the classical artes liberals about it. The university is a social service, an institution in the service of “change” in the now. “Be careful!” the Pope warned the students in Quito: “It is not enough to analyze and describe reality; there is a need to shape environments of creative thinking, discussion which develops alternatives to current problems…. We need to move to the concreate.” Such urging reminded me of St. Francis Xavier’s complaint that the students at the University of Paris in his day dallied around frivolous pursuits. They refused to come out to the Indies to help save souls being lost every day. Pope Francis’s vision is more earth-bound. He wants “change” and he wants it immediately.

Indeed, by my count, the word “change”, mostly in the vocative case, was used at least thirty times in the Pope’s lecture to the “Popular Movements” (July 9). What exactly each of these some hundred and fifty “popular movements” is, I have difficulty in finding information. I located a “Popular Movement” in Morocco, one in Angola, and one, interestingly, in Argentina. But none of these look like the audience in Bolivia. I did find a list of over a hundred “social movements”, one of which was for “free love”. But they covered almost every ideological strain that one could imagine. This past summer the Congregation on Justice and Peace held a meeting of some one hundred and fifty social movements, presumably selected for their seriousness. In any case, the Pope had addressed this same group in Rome earlier. He urges every diocese to have them represented.

The audiences at the Pope’s addresses were huge, and Francis definitely comes to life in these contexts, especially in countries within his own tradition. While in the press we find much discussion about who was using who, the Pope the politicians or the politicians the Pope, both had much to gain and lose with any misstep of public relations. Whether the “Communist Crucifix” that Evo Morales gave the Pope helped or hindered either one is open to debate. My bet is that, in the best capitalist sense, replicas of it sell like, as they say, hot cakes. The Pope found the origin of the Crucifix from a Spanish Jesuit poet, who was killed in Bolivia. He called it “protest art”.

Whatever else might be said of other papal address in Bolivia, this one at Santa Cruz was pure Bergoglio. It contains his vision of the world and what is wrong with it. He is telling us—not asking our opinions. He has already made his conclusions. It is what I would call a very apocalyptic and utopian address. It describes both how terrible things are and how idyllic they can be. There is little room for a common sense middle, for a view that the world might just go on its own way as it has for millennia. It was a “second commandment” (“love thy neighbor”) and not a “first commandment” (“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God”) exhortation. It was closer to Joachim of Fiora than to Augustine of Hippo.

II.

As far as I could judge, we find, in this particular address, almost no trace of traditional Christian concerns with personal virtue, salvation, sin, sacrifice, long-suffering, repentance, eternal life, or an abiding vale of tears. Sins and evils are transformed into social or ecological issues that require political and structural remedies. Problems are at the same time said to be “global” and “individual”. Pope Francis urges individual action and global refashioning. The evil is caused by capitalism in the form of money and greed. The free market capitalism, severely limited by the state, that actually exists has little hearing. Time cited a comment that such moderate capitalism was the only way that could really achieve what the Pope wanted for the poor before him. Thus the central questions that the Pope brings up in this address is: “What works? What does not work for the end envisioned?” This end that Pope Francis seems to envision is nothing less than a world transformation of mankind to save itself, soon—indeed, now!

Very little is said about actual governments, their make up, or their effects. Almost never do we hear of the modern state, with its bureaucratic hand in almost everything, with its theoretic basis in voluntarism, to be an independent and central problem. For many, it is the state itself that causes most of the dangerous problems that the Pope is worried about. Pope Francis has a theory of tyranny, but not, as in the classic writers, a theory of the tyranny of the state, including the democratic state, as such.

There are descriptions of terrible wars with endless refugees, but barely a word about who might be causing those wars or what can be done about such causes and with what means. The conflicts and turmoil that arise from Islam, the most visible ones we see, are not economic or political in origin. The real problem is evidently not Islam but money, No doubt, with the enormous borrowings and debt of almost all nations, including the United States with its amazing deficit, international finance is a serious issue. These debts, however, have more to do with political demands of “rights” in democratic and socialist states than they do with corporations or banking systems that are themselves either functions of state polity or limited by them.

This failure to see the modern state itself as a central problem in achieving the ends that concern the Pope may well be a heritage of Latin America’s mercantilist past when Spain ran every Latin country from Madrid. I read a biography recently of Simon Bolivar which suggested that the Latin American conception of the state sees it as the major or even sole organ for rule and change. A major strand of political rhetoric in the United States, at least, has always been about limiting the powers of government, checks and balances, federalism, two houses of the legislature, elections, and rule of law. What seems most obvious about our present regime is practical loss of these protections that were set up to limit the state. The Supreme Court in effect passes laws on its own. The President issues decrees but refuses to enforce the laws he is obliged to enforce. We will see the Pope’s take on these things when he addresses Congress in September. But it is unlikely that Francis will see America in the light of any need to limit state power as such.

There is an invisible thread joining every one of the forms of exclusion,” Pope Francis states:

These are not isolated issues. Can we recognize that invisible thread joining every one of the forms of exclusion? These are not isolated issues. Can we recognize that invisible thread which links them? I wonder whether we can see that those destructive realities are part of a system which has become global. Do we realize that the system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?

One needs time to parse this remarkable analysis. The Pope evidently “sees” an “invisible” thread that most of us do not see so clearly. The thread excludes people. They or their governments do not exclude themselves by their choices and actions. The “invisible” thread—one is reminded of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—is worldwide. The “thread” betrays a “system”. This “system” has not exactly taken anything from others. Rather it has “imposed a mentality”. Just how it has accomplished this imposition is not clear. In any case, it had to do with “profit at any price”. This “any price” is presumably to distinguish it from “profit at a just price”. Without some kind of measure of success or failure, usually called money, no system can work. This invisible “thread” also excludes and destroys nature.

The Pope, as I mentioned, is apocalyptic. In one of many similar passages, Francis graphically tells us:

Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreparable harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth’s entire peoples and individual groups are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction is the stench…of the “dung of the devil.”

An unfettered pursuit of money rules. Presumably there is a “fettered” pursuit of money that is legitimate, just as there is a profit that is not “at any price”. How these latter might work is difficult to determine from the lecture. The Pope is clear that thinking of these things is a task that all of us must do.

III.

The lecture is broken into three general parts according to slogans partly familiar to any economics student—not “land, labor, and capital,” but “land labor, and lodging.” Housing takes the place of capital, which is not discussed. And what is interesting about almost all the examples the Pope uses is that land is agricultural land. Labor is work on this land. And housing is the place where workers and families live. When we come from societies in which agriculture makes up less than two or three percent of the work force, while labor is highly technical, it takes some adjustment to think that the best way to address the problem pointed out by the Pope is by the classical redistribution of land into smaller units in which a man can make a living. One is not quite sure whether we should all return to the land or whether the poor do not need another system, often called “capitalism”, by which the whole “system” can be “changed”, if I might use that word.

As I have pondered this and other addresses of this Pope, I think it would be useful to sketch an outline of what he has in mind and the suppositions that authenticate it. I will then sketch an alternate approach that has the same concern for the earth and the poor, as well as everyone else.

On his way back from Paraguay on the plane, a German reporter asked the Pope why he seems always to divide the world into the very rich and very poor, but he does not pay much attention to the middle class. This is, of course, a question right out of Plato and Aristotle. This kind of division only sets one group off against another. The theory of the middle class was designed to account for the vast majority who were neither rich nor poor but understood that some rich and some poor would exist in any society. Much current discussion concerns the decline of the middle class and the growing division between rich and poor in western countries. The Pope himself often cites this latter fact. Yet, the cause of this decline is usually said to be because the poor countries can do these jobs cheaper and with as much skill. This transfer of jobs is a boon to the poorer countries, something presumably the Pope wants to see.

But first, I think it wise to say something occasioned by the appointments of Schnellhuber, Starks, and Kline to be papal advisors on ecology. Here we are concerned with the relation of marriage and family issues to state and ecological theory. Some claim that the Pope made these appointments to entice scientists to a more moderate view. Ecology and environmentalism are, however, not just pious theories about caring for the Earth. We have here an overarching theory for the control of population in which contraception, abortion, limited families, “gay marriage”, cloning, euthanasia, and state control of both begetting and children are necessary and interconnected components.

The suppositions on earth-warming and planetary destruction that the Holy Father maintains as inarguable are, in fact, neither scientifically unchallenged nor neutral on moral grounds.

The desire to reduce the population of the earth to less than a billion, which some of these advisers hold, is a logical consequence of a dogmatic “belief” about the capacity or incapacity of the Earth to sustain man. It implies a denial of his ability to provide for present or greater populations with the riches that God has given to the planet, a riches that includes the human mind and its scope. Analytically speaking, this combination of ecology and population control is a form of tyranny that justifies state control of human action and prospects.

Further, it is not by accident that the incentive and means for the sort of care of the earth that the Pope encourages takes place in the developed world and nowhere else. My main point here is to suggest the logic that exists, once we assume the validity of a theory about population and limited resources. All the “means” noted above follow and are being followed step by step to a world with an elite few and the need to rid the planet of six or seven billion actually existing people—this on the theory that we cannot care for them. That, however, is simply not true. The Holy Father is certainly against abortion, euthanasia, and population control. What seems unclear to many is how advisers who hold these practices necessary in view of theories of ecology are at all helpful to what the Pope is really after. We all should be on the side of growth and virtue, not death and control.

IV.

In summary, the Holy Father’s view of the world holds that it is a gift of God to be worked on and cared for. He does not deny the “dominion” position of Genesis, but just what is the distinction between proper use and exploiting or defacing the earth is not clear. The world, it is said, is running out of resources, even though resource availability, as Julian Simon argued, always seems to be rising. We must care for future generations. This means we must limit our own usages. We waste; we throw away things. This is both a world-wide problem and an individual one. We can “sin” by improper use of finite resources. Burning fossil fuels is wrong because it pollutes the atmosphere.

Most of the problems are of human, especially industrial and technological, not natural, origins. Though the validity or consequences of what this means is highly controverted, the Pope insists that he follows what is called science. This is why some writers are concerned about his Galileo problem in reverse. Instead of refusing to grant a scientific fact, it may be embracing another without questioning it. Since science changes because of changing evidence, much of what the Pope affirms is based on contemporary scientific opinion that will almost certainly change.

Pope Francis posits that what controls the wealth of the earth is capitalism, which is based on money and greed. It is the cause of the poverty of the poor, not the basis of their hope for being not poor. This “system” escapes all political control. Nations are ruled by it; no nation is independent of it. The victims are the poor whose numbers are huge and evidently getting poorer. Wars and disasters are caused by this “system”. World organization, presumably with coercive power, is necessary to save the earth and the poor:

None of the grave problems of humanity can be resolved without interaction between states and peoples at the international level. Every significant action carried out in one part of the planet has universal, ecological, social and cultural repercussions. Even crime and violence have become globalized. Consequently, no government can act independently of a common responsibility.

The poor are victims. Thus, on one side, the Pope has a pessimistic, apocalyptic view of the world as ruled by evil forces, even perhaps the devil. “Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste, and harmed with impunity. Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin.”

On his optimistic side, the Pope sees the poor who just want land, lodging, and labor opportunities and are willing to work for them. But “it is not so easy to define the content of change, in other words, a social program which can embody this project of fraternity and justice which we are seeking,” The Pope acknowledges that “it is not easy to define it. So don’t expect a recipe from this Pope. Neither the Pope nor the Church has a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposals of solutions to contemporary issues.” This frank passage serves to place in context the Pope’s own remarks. His views, in this second sense of building an earthly home, are tentative; they are almost distributist or even Southern agrarian in mood.

Each man and woman wants a home, to work, and to provide for their children. Technology is at best a help, but it has many anti-ecological effects and works to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few rich. Whether the Pope embraces an absolute no-growth position is not clear. Certainly the ecological side seems not just to mandate this no growth policy but also a radical reduction of human numbers. In this view, people as such are the real problem. Pollution, though volcanos and hurricanes do happen and contribute, is related directly to human beings and their enterprises. The Pope states that “the economy should not be a mechanism for accumulating goods, but the proper administration of our common home. This entails a commitment to care for that home and to the fitting distribution of its goods to all.”

V.

In conclusion, is there another way to look at land, labor, and lodging, at the earth and the accomplishment of “well-being” for everyone that would better do what the Pope seems to want? He admits that his solutions are not final. The best way to approach this issue, I think, is to acknowledge that, in fact, the earth already, with the help of human ingenuity, virtue, and work, already provides for a large portion of its inhabitants in a manner better than any age in the past. Fifty years ago when the population of the planet was less than four billion, we were told that we would be starving to death in fifty years—the same sort of rhetoric we now hear from many environmentalists, but usually not economists.

What was the problem? One was the assumption that “goods”—land, labor, capital—are static things. If we had the economic and industrial tools of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, there is no way the planet could serve a population of seven billion. Do we assume that it is a bad thing to have learned how to do so? But it does and almost all of the people today are better off than most anyone in earlier eras.

Secondly, the image of the earth as a perpetual balance is not a scientific concept. The earth itself changes. But so does our knowledge of it and what is possible. It is clearly much richer than anyone but perhaps God might have imagined. We can choose to cease striving to support a large population, but we do not have to. We can force ourselves to insist on a very small population on the basis of supposed facts about resources of the planet. But both the planet and the human mind surprise us. At present there is no way to guess what will be needed by people in one or two centuries—along with land, labor, lodging, virtue, and a sense of transcendence. To seek to base a policy for the future on our present policies and knowledge is not science or intelligence. It is guess work, and possibly bad guesswork.

What is wrong with a more reasonable and congenial outlook that suggests that the earth (and the cosmos) has plenty of resources waiting for us to know and use? I would hold that the gift of God of the earth was sufficient for His purposes, which are ultimately our transcendent end. They are not simply to keep us going down the ages. That, as Benedict XVI showed in Spe Salvi, is the modern project, or the “immanentization of the eschaton”, as Eric Voegelin called it. The end time, after all, as Josef Pieper recalled in his great book, The End of Time, is not pictured as a garden on earth but as, with only a few faithful left, a final judgment about how we lived in whatever age or place into which we were born.

Most people who have lived on this planet—maybe a hundred billion of them—are already dead and judged. Their lives did not depend on some ecological future in this world. We have in fact no idea how many “futures” we will have. We certainly cannot base our morality in this world on what might happen in 4500 AD. In the end, I think that Pope Francis’ “Bolivian Manifesto” is what he says it is. Do not ask for a detailed answer to all the issues, but consider his concerns and ask: “What is the best way to help the poor?” “How can we make the earth the resource font that God gave it to us to be?” It is beautiful without man on it. It is more beautiful with men on it, lots of men, as I expect that God intended and provided for “from the beginning…”

About James V. Schall, S.J. 158 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.