Pope Francis is catching on to the idea that we live in an age of instant information and short, memorable sound bytes. Last week he quoted Basil of Caesarea by calling money “the devil’s dung.” Known for his uncompromising attacks on unrestrained capitalism and greed, Pope Francis strengthened his case in a positive way by encouraging a confederation of Italian cooperatives to continue their work.
To understand Pope Francis’ economics we need to turn away from the simplistic clash between left-wing socialism and right-wing capitalism. Catholic social teaching condemns socialism for substituting state systems of welfare for personal responsibility, and for obliterating individual freedoms through oppressive state control. Catholic social teaching also condemns unrestrained capitalism for focusing only on the quest for wealth at the expense of workers, the environment and the common good.
Pope St. John Paul II called both socialism and capitalism, “Atheistic, materialistic systems.” What he meant was that both systems focus only on the worldly attainment of money and power. They operate as if God does not exist, and each in their own way, subject the human person to the drive for wealth and power. In doing so, devotees of both systems worship money— “the devil’s dung.”
Instead, in his address to the members of the Italian co operative movement, Pope Francis emphasized economic principles that focus on the human person and the human family. The Italian Confederation of Cooperatives encourages private enterprise, helps fund start up businesses and draws people together into shared ownership of businesses for their own welfare and the assistance of the poor.
A cooperative illustrates one of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching: solidarity. Solidarity is the shared community of individuals and families for the common good. The Catholic solidarity principle is different from socialism because it is from the ground up rather than the top down. Socialism and communism attempt to impose a form of solidarity through state control whereas true solidarity is a genuine movement of the people for the people and by the people.
The second principle of Catholic social teaching — subsidiarity — is inextricably intertwined with solidarity. “Subsidiarity” is the idea that initiatives and solutions are best taken at the lowest possible level of human society rather than the highest. In other words we look for the local solution rather than the national or global solution. The world is changed for the good not by governments enacting legislation, but by individuals working locally to transform their own lives, the lives of their families and their community.
When solidarity and subsidiarity work together a dynamism and energy is generated amongst individuals which motivates and inspires them to change. This is in contrast to governmental of big business solutions which increase bureaucracy, oppress the population with regulations, encourage dependency on “big brother” and rob individuals of initiative, drive and dignity.
Pope Francis lamented a “throwaway culture” that neglects the family, discards the elderly and disregards the weak, vulnerable, sick and disabled. Although he was speaking to members of a cooperative movement the Pope might also have highlighted the efforts of Catholic entrepreneurs to put these same humane principles to work in their businesses.
A prime example of enlightened business ownership was the richest man in Italy, Catholic chocolatier, Michele Ferrero who died recently. Ferrero built his family business selling Nutella, Tic Tacs and Kinder eggs into a huge global success, but retained a strong and humble Catholic faith. His greatest pride was not the amount of money he made, but the happiness and security of his workers. "My only concern,” he once said, “is that the company is increasingly solid and strong to guarantee all workers a secure place.”
Ferrero, and the many other Catholic entrepreneurs apply the principles of Catholic social teaching within their enterprises. They have a keen eye for profit and know how to make money, but they realize that the money is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. For Catholics the ideal combination is not to rely on governmental or big business solutions, but to bring together individual enterprise and cooperative efforts to support the whole human family and bring about the abundant life Christ promises.
Finally, Catholic social teaching is not distinct from Catholic spiritual teaching. It is no mistake that Pope Francis called money “the devil’s dung” because what we do with our money is connected with what we do with our souls. Money becomes the devil’s dung when it is worshipped instead of God. When we look to money for our source of security and trust it has taken the place of God. When we look to money for our source of self-esteem and confidence it has taken the place of God. When we give that money generously and focus on others the devil’s dung becomes something greater.
The lesson is simple: money might be the devil’s dung, but dung has its uses. When it is hoarded in one place it stinks and rots the soul, but when the manure is spread around it fertilizes and makes everything grow strong and good.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book Slubgrip Instructs. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in invite him to speak at your event through dwightlongenecker.com