“Universal destination” may sound like a fancy way of saying where
we’re all headed, but this odd expression happens to be the name for a
central principle of Catholic social teaching. It follows therefore that
it is also central to Pope Francis’ much-discussed apostolic
exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
point is important particularly in light of the announcement that the
Pope and President Obama will meet in late March in Rome to
talkaccording to the presidentabout their shared concern over economic
inequality. It’s a matter on which they see eye to eye. Or do they?
friendly critics of the apostolic exhortation have seemed often to miss
its central thrust, with perhaps some reason. The document is long,
rambling, and studded with overly broad generalizations, and the flaws
make it easy for well-disposed readers to become distracted and lose
track of what its economic sections are actually saying.
Begin with the crucial fact that, like other social justice documents of the Magisterium, Evangelii Gaudium
doesn’t deal in policies and programs but principles. The most
important of these is the universal destination of goods, understood as
an existential basis for an equitable sharing of the world’s wealth.
(Worth recalling as America marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.)
Francis, looking at the global scene, puts it like this: “We must never
forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all
mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer
resource or less development does not justify the fact that they are
living with less dignity” (Evangelii Gaudium, 190). With necessary adjustments, that applies to the national and local levels too.
Pope isn’t saying anything new. Other popes have made the same point.
But apparently it’s new to some. In conversation with several
well-educated Catholic laymen a while back, I mentioned the universal
destination of goods and was met with blank disbelief: Surely the Church
never said anything like that. Evidently there’s work to do getting the
It’s a simple enough principle. God created the
world for everyone to live in and cultivate and enjoy, and that should
govern the distribution of its fruits. The right to private ownership,
also affirmed by the Church, remains undisturbed in this view. But it
isn’t absolute, and the principle shaping its exercise is “universal
destination.” Francis says: “The private ownership of goods is justified
by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve
the common good” (Evangelii Gaudium, 189).
to the moral imperative of some form of redistribution of wealth. Here
many critics lose their cool, assuming this means heavy-handed statist
intervention in the economy, ruinous taxation of individuals and private
enterprises that discourages initiative, and the rest of the
neo-liberal chamber of horrors. Francis’ remedy is different: it’s moral
Activists of the left and the right commonly
proceed as if structuresgovernment programs, free markets, or some
combination of bothwere sufficient to ensure justice and prosperity for
all. But structures must be supported by change of heart. One without
the other won’t do the job. Structural changes are needed, Francis says,
but also more: “We are called to find Christ in [the poor], to lend our
voice to their causes…to be their friends” (Evangelii Gaudium, 198).
people will reasonably ask: Is that realistic? To which the answer is:
Maybe not, but the Church must keep saying it, or it never will be.