On Easter Sunday the pope issued an emotive letter addressing his “dear friends” of the World Meeting Popular Movements (WMPM), a series of annual gatherings to encourage social justice workers Francis launched about five years ago in Rome and later internationally in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. This year the international movement, like many other canceled events, has sadly not enjoyed a papal audience. Hence Francis’s letter of affection and nostalgia released publicly on April 12th.
The WMPM movement is formed by members of supposedly non-ideological social justice agencies as well as interdenominational ministries. Its members are committed to nourishing, advising, sheltering, and giving professional, pastoral and psychological support to the poorest of the poor. The WMPM advocates for what the pope calls the three essential Spanish T’s (Trabajo, Tierra, Techo): improved conditions for work, land-food, and housing.
A U.S. based WMPM web site states the movement was “an initiative of Pope Francis…to create an ‘encounter’ between Church leadership and grassroots organizations working to address the ‘economy of exclusion and inequality’.”
In essence, most WMPM members work closely with the poor while administering to social justice programs aimed at uplifting them from poverty and coping with their daily misery.
Francis is right in stating that the WMPM mission often goes unnoticed, saying in his letter that they form an “invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches.” His Easter missive was surely the first time millions of readers had even heard of the international movement. Ironically, during the COVID lockdown, their work is even less on anyone’s radar: WMPM social workers, like most anyone else, can’t even fulfill their labors when at least 157 countries, as of Holy Week, had already issued comprehensive, even extreme, quarantine polices. Such measures have shut down all non-essential services, a term that applies to many social justice ministries operated by the Church and private non-profits, as state welfare systems have replaced them in order to minimize movement of private citizens, including clergy who are fined when performing pastoral work. In the very least, social justice workers, whose Christian service ministries are not their full-time professions, have been forbidden to conduct charitable activities outside their residence.
“Now, in the midst of this pandemic, I think of you in a special way and wish to express my closeness to you,” the pope wrote. “I want you to know that our Heavenly Father watches over you, values you, appreciates you, and supports you.”
What exactly is the pope praying for in terms of WMPM heavenly “support”? It is none other than a salario universal, a minimal salary that is guaranteed by government or other means.
“You have no steady income to get you through this hard time … and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable,” the pope lamented. “This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out.”
What to make of this? Was the pope really referring to his desire for a universal basic income (UBI) to be granted to social justice workers? Indeed, he was, as a careful reading of the letter reveals. He is referring to none other than his “dear friends”—the economically suffering in the WMPM network. He is not advocating for the poor in general whom they assist, but specifically for their charitable assistants.
Why is the focus of the pope’s compassion on social workers and not on the poor who have no money or means whatsoever to work during the worldwide lockdown? After all, they cannot even hop on a boat and illegally immigrate.
In the “trenches”, but gratuitously
The larger unquestioned question therefore is this: are not most social workers usually those who have the luxury of time and money to administer to the poor’s needs through volunteer efforts? Do they not pursue social justice work in the context of a parish ministry, a lay missionary activity, or through social enterprises they establish with residual income they already earn from gainful employment or lucrative private business? Moreover, is not the other large swath of WMPM members professional religious who already have income provided from within their convents, abbeys, and congregations?
Even if WMPM members are in the “trenches” as the pope said, their work is “noble” not just for its own magnanimous merit, but more so because it is done gratuitously—with private means and with pure charity. Such social work is most often not done for the sake of a salary. It is done whether one is compensated or not. Money does not matter. It is not an idol that enters such work-related motives. Exceptionally, indeed, some social assistants are as poor as the people they serve, and count on some extra income their social justice projects. But this is the exception, not the rule.
So why would someone, notably Pope Francis, wish for an UBI for social justice workers? If anything, shouldn’t he be wishing for an UBI for those who have recently lost their jobs in the most affected markets (as in the hospitality sectors), which will not return to normalcy anytime soon? He should be desirous of an UBI for those cannot escape the vicious circle of poverty. It would be far more practical.
It seems that the some in the press have completely hijacked the pope’s words. They have purposively taken Francis’s letter out of context to promote a UBI policy at national levels because “the pope said so”. Hence we read headlines that purposefully leave out the context of WMPM workers as the pope’s targeted recipients of an UBI, making it seem that it was universal appeal for all the world’s poor: “Pope Ponders Universal Basic Income as World Economy Withers” and “The pope just proposed a ‘universal basic wage.’ What does that mean for the United States?”
Two articles, in fact, completely hack the pope’s intention. In America magazine’s piece titled “In Easter message, Pope Francis proposes ‘universal basic wage’” we read:
In a remarkable Easter Sunday letter to members of social movements around the world, Pope Francis, noting that the widespread suffering caused by the global coronavirus pandemic does not fall evenly, suggested that the crisis warranted the establishment of a universal basic wage. He described it also as an opportunity for affluent societies to “downshift” and re-evaluate patterns of consumption and exploitation.
In CNBC’s article “Pope Francis: ‘This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage’”, the journalist cuts out several key words regarding the intended audience: “This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage” to “acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks” and to “achieve the ideal … of no worker without rights.”
The answer is in subsidiarity, healthy markets
What’s certain is that Francis did not advocate was a UBI for everyone. His own Vatican City State is suffering unfathomable losses in the millions of euro now that the Vatican Museums have ceased all operations over the past six weeks along with far fewer international donations coming into Peter’s Pence. There is no way the pope could offer an UBI package to potentially furloughed Vatican employees.
Whether or not the UBI was a universal Paschal plea by Francis, in terms of concretely helping the poor, the Acton Institute’s Michigan-based economist Stephen Barrows offers differing advice. He says that helping the poor is really about understanding the specific ways to assist them, not just issuing generic welfare checks. He says we must listen to what the Church teaches us about subsidiarity and respecting how robust economic engines permit private individuals to generate additional income to fund social justice programs:
The popular movements which defend the dignity of the poor and marginalized rightly focus on the three “T’s”: Trabajo, Techo, and Tierra. Regardless of the specific nature of any particular safety net, the principle of subsidiarity reminds us that it is often those on the front lines who can identify the most appropriate solutions for specific cases….But perhaps most importantly the durability of safety nets presuppose productive economic activity by which those safety nets can be supported—and the economic disruption caused by the pandemic has significantly burdened those safety nets, however conceived or implemented.
The bottom line is that Francis should have more concern for the dangling market economy. If we tragically kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, then there will be no more robust income generation, which in turn will not be able to fuel private or public welfare initiatives. No work equals no private donations and no taxable salaries.
Indeed, while Christian charity permeates WMPM social justice programs, they cannot remain financially viable while severe economic suffering criss-crosses the globe. A planetary market collapse would bring even the WMPM network to its knees. In such Armageddon economies, any UBI granted to social justice workers would fairly spent taking care of their own three T’s.
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