Pope Francis longs for what he calls a “better kind of politics” (##146ff), one that can be responsive to the vision of a global community of fraternity based on social friendship (#154). Do we need this? One glance at the divisive results of our current politics makes the answer easy, the implementation very difficult. It is a vision that wants to unify people into a genuine people, looking to long-term advantages rather than short-term benefits. He thinks that unjust inequality can only be overcome and sustained by proper economic growth, the key to which is employment; “welfare projects” should always be temporary responses to crises (##161-162). It’s a straightforward statement he makes: “…there is no poverty worse than that which takes away work and the dignity of work” (#162). Pope St John Paul II would have heartily agreed.
This is a social issue because “private life cannot exist unless it is protected by public order. …Even the Good Samaritan, for example, needed to have a nearby inn that could provide the help that he was personally unable to offer” (##164-165). The trouble, he thinks, is that too often we refuse to recognize our own role in guaranteeing such support of others; we don’t always think of the ways we can engage in supporting the common good. It is at this point that Pope Francis makes one of the most arresting comments of the whole encyclical:
“…the proclivity to selfishness that is part of what the Christian tradition refers to as ‘concupiscence’: the human inclination to be concerned only with myself, my group, my own petty interests.” (#166)
This quote stunned me because most of the time when “concupiscence” is discussed it’s all about sexual desires run rampant. The Holy Father places it in a much larger context that is broadly applicable to us in many differing ways. It is human weakness, as he says—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or William Golding’s reference to “mankind’s essential illness” in Lord of the Flies. But in Jesus Christ we can find a cure for this illness—we don’t have to be locked into the concupiscence of narcissism. We are created to be community and family, not isolated, self-seeking individuals.
Since this is a description of a social reality, Pope Francis realizes the need for and the dignity of politics as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good” (#180). So while personal acts of charity are wonderful, “it is an equally indispensable act of love to strive to organize and structure society so that one’s neighbor will not find himself in poverty” (#186). This insight reminded me of a comment by Peter Maurin, the co-founder (along with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker movement: “Society should be structured so that it is easy to be good.” Now there’s a vision!
Can I contribute to this vision? Yes, even if I cannot create the vision single-handedly. “…we should remember that, ‘appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life. …We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our hearts are filled with faces and names!’” (#195)