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Pope Francis Talks Economics

The Argentinean pontiff has made it part of his papacy to speak out very vocally for the

oppressed. He has spoken to the people about abortion, even taking it to the streets in the Italian March for Life. He has spoken about loving persons with homosexual inclinations, loving them no matter what their decisions may entail. He has spoken about seeking peace, because war does nothing but destroy human lives. This consistent theme of speaking of things in relation to the human person reveals the attitude of solidarity.

In the United States, Solidarity is a Trotskyist advocacy group. In Poland, it is a political party and market-based workers’ union. “Solidarity” can be heard at political rallies throughout the world protesting on any of a variety of issues, from LGBTQ equality, abortion (from both the pro-choice and pro-life positions), and the rights of workers to a just wage. Underlying this rallying cry is a philosophy rooted in the human person, a philosophy whereby the human person is seen as fulfilling his own nature by aiding those around him.

Karol Wojtyla, later to become more widely known as John Paul II, wrote a work called The Acting Person. In this work, he outlined the nature of the human person, and how his nature is fully revealed in the reality of acting. This involves the human person’s interiority, his self-reflection and self-determination, participating in that which belongs to him fundamentally as a person, i.e., freedom. Stemming from free action comes the responsibility for our actions, making every action we take truly our own.

Given this understanding of freedom, I would say there is very little that is new in Wojtyla’s work. His genius is shown primarily in his methodology, rather than his conclusions. But his methodology does lead to surprising conclusions when it comes to intersubjectivity, the relation of person to person.

Wojtyla examines two different systems of participation, participation being another way of acting “together with others.” Each sees the person in a different light. The first of these is individualism, which is a radical undervaluing of the community. Community is simply a defense of the individual’s own freedom, and, for an individual, others are seen as a limit on oneself. Standing in opposition to individualism is totalism, which places the human person at the whims of the community: a person is good only because he is a member of society. The former is the view of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Ayn Rand, whereas the latter is a direct commentary on Marx’s understanding of the human being. In personalism, the system in which the person is seen in both his individuality and communality, there is an attitude of participation—one which Wojtyla calls the only authentic attitude that respects the total human person—called solidarity. Solidarity, as it is taught in The Acting Person, is a person’s readiness to accept his responsibility in and for a group by virtue of his membership in that group; he does this because he has the benefit of the whole in his mind and values it because it is a benefit, not simply because the community demands it or because it will benefit him.

Each of these world views—the individualist, the totalist, and the solidarist—implies a different moral weight. Depending on your own moral understanding, you might agree with them in a significantly different way. It appears that a humanist would tend to agree with the latter two positions—that of the totalist and that of the solidarist. Utilitarians would often tend toward the individualist position, though it should also be noted that utilitarianism looks toward the maximum pleasure for the maximum amount of people, an idea that can be heard from both sides of the political spectrum but with special emphases on the individual or the community at large, thereby still negating the person.

In the eighteenth century, there was a published work entitled The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. With this work—though not without antecedents—economics was established as a science, one which was subject to the same laws as any other science and had some laws which belonged uniquely to it. The market moved in its own way, not subject to the persons who assumed its control. “The invisible hand” is the workings of the market, left to its own devices. The laissez-faire ideals that have emerged from this idea have led to two important developments, the first being great expansions in wealth. The second, more significant, development has been the plight of the poor increasing in prominence. Pope Francis speaks about the second development nearly every chance he gets.

By speaking to the people about the poor, Pope Francis has adopted a specific type of solidarity, one which is aimed at seeing the problems of the community as my own problems. This solidarist response ignores the development of economics as a science and sees first the moral implications of the science. When Pope Francis speaks of the lie of trickle-down economics, he sees how that has affected the poor. He does not speak in scientific terms, as Paul Ryan does. He doesn’t speak by redefinition of capital and labor, as Karl Marx did. He speaks in terms of morality, how economics as a science might affect the human person’s life.

The confusion with Pope Francis’s approach to economics arises from the fact that he never speaks of ends separated from means: the existential quality of economics in the now is inseparable from a genuinely personalist morality. Market economics refuses to regard the most important variable, i.e., the human person and his actions within the system and thereby fails the test of a personalist approach. Pope Francis speaks in terms of solidarity when approaching economics because he sees the role the human person plays in the market systems and refuses to participate in a crapshoot played with an invisible hand. The market is a non-person affecting persons, and the latter deserves greater attention and love than anything the market has to offer.

Photo by Semilla Luz, some rights reserved


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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