At a time when American public life appears to be increasingly forgetful of the local level of political and economic initiative, Pope Francis has issued a strong affirmation of the principle of subsidiarity at the service of the family. In a letter addressed to Turin’s Mayor Piero Fassino and other authorities and participants in the Third Global Forum on Local Development, held October 13-16, the Pope applauded local economic initiative, anchoring his message in themes previously explored in his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and during his recent visit to the United States and the United Nations.
Localized economic development is an integral aspect of the Church’s social doctrine. In Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis denounced a centralized economy of exclusion that idolizes money. He condemned large-scale economic regimes that prop up financial systems that rule instead of serve, spawning inequality and violence among peoples, and impeding the work of the inculturation of the faith at the service of the “Gospel of the Family.”
Pope Francis continued to oppose large-scale economic policies that marginalize individual local communities during his recent historic visit to Cuba and the United States. When he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he discoursed on the need to do charitable work in the world that results in the advancement of all people and the promotion of the common good, but that is nonetheless tethered to sound integral development within a moral framework. In speaking on that theme, he advocated foundational values like subsidiarity and solidarity, which evidence respect for the local level, especially the family rooted in marriage.
Those themes from his first post-synodal declaration and his UN address found expression in his Turin letter last week. There, he proposed “local economic development…[as] the most suitable response to the challenges presented to us by a globalized economy, the results of which are often cruel.” And he advised against falling in too easily with technocratic solutions that neglect the moral ecology of the human family, noting that they lead “to a twofold danger: becoming limited to the bureaucratic exercise of drawing up a long list of good intentions, or creating a single a priori theoretical solution to respond to all challenges.”
By exploring this theme, Francis deepened his earlier cautions against something he termed “declarationist nominalism” that sets upon foundational intermediary institutions like marriage and the family, “ideologically colonizing” them for the benefit of a post-modern vision of a utopia of conformism that excludes and marginalizes religious liberty.
The Pope’s Turin letter lasts week supports and affirms aspects essential to his recent messaging on marriage and the family. This month he has convened the Synod of Bishops on the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.” Sunday, he bestowed sainthood upon the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux and two others, marking the first time a married couple has been raised to the honor of the altar in the same rite of canonization. And, just this Wednesday, he continued his weekly catechetical addresses on the theme of marital spirituality and the vocation of the family.
In all his catecheses on marriage and the family, the Pope has denounced any kind of declarationist nominalism and ideological colonization, which always have the ultimate effect of numbing consciences. Those elements of what his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI termed the “dictatorship of relativism” reduce the basic cell of human community—family rooted in life-long marriage between one man and one woman—to a technical apparatus that can be manipulated at will.
Protecting local life against centralizing tendencies is a necessary pathway toward the renewal of the family in the face of an aggressive culture of death. But, as Pope Francis told his Turin audience, such a renewal must come by way of an enriched spiritual outlook that is vigilant against “economic decisions that in general seek to promote the progress of all through the generation of new consumption and the continuing increase of profits”—a materialistic mindset that seeks nothing higher than the demands of the ego rooted in sensual satisfaction, placing undue stress and burdens on families. He denounced such economic initiatives as “unsustainable for the progress of the global economy itself” and “immoral, as they sideline any question about what is just and what truly serves the common good.”
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