Across the land today, shuffling through shopping malls and big-box stores, Americans are partaking in the annual secular sacrament known as Black Friday, the start of a holiday season whose purpose sometimes seems to be to eat too much, drink too much and buy too much.
So it’s a good time, perhaps, for a contemplative pause. This week, in the first major statement of his papacy, Pope Francis offered a wide-ranging meditation on work, economics and inequality. He expressed little that was new in Catholic economic thought. But he conveyed some old ideas in a new and striking lexicon. Two messages, in particular, seem salient on this high holy day of consumption.
The first was more general. Francis wrote at length about the perils of unconstrained finance, such as excessive inequality and the plight of the poor who are left behind or manipulated by economic forces beyond their control. The moral assumption underlying this argument bears a more explicit statement: Markets are composed of individuals, and economic decisions have human consequences. Governments, in turn, have an obligation to protect the weak from “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”
Francis’s second message was more personal. “The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!” he writes (punctuation his: True to form, Francis is joyous even when critical). The market, he says, tends to degrade people, to reduce them to heedless consumers. It’s hard to disagree, especially this time of year.
None of this is a call for revolution, necessarily. Market capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty, radically advanced science and medicine, and led to many technological innovations that improve the lives of rich and poor alike. To say that it also leaves many people behind, and that it has regrettable side effects, is not to deny these benefits. It’s only to acknowledge that they come at a cost.
The question, for popes as well as politicians, is how to mitigate that cost.
The solution isn’t for governments to seek ever more aggressive forms of redistribution, or to try somehow to turn back the capitalist system. It’s to rethink the social safety net for a new and more complicated age, one in which inequality is widening, the middle class is thinning and new technology -- what the pope calls an “epochal change” -- threatens to destabilize a generation of workers.
On a personal level -- in many ways the harder task -- mitigating the harmful side effects of capitalism’s advance requires a better understanding that consumption isn’t an end in itself. “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation,” the pope writes, “provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.”
That’s no small challenge, of course. But it’s a worthy one -- certainly more so than fighting the crowds at the mall. And here’s a piece of advice the pope left out of his encyclical: Black Friday sales are mostly a sham. Go home. Enjoy the simpler pleasures in life.
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