Pope Francis delivered an off-the-cuff, mini-encyclical on the rights of the poor, the injustices of unemployment, and the need for environmental protection on Tuesday, October 28, in Rome, saying he’s not preaching communism but the Gospel.
Francis’ remarks to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, delivered in his native Spanish, ran for more than six pages, single-spaced. It was one of the longest speeches of his pontificate and a clear sign that the issues are particularly close to his heart. F
rancis said the poor need land, a roof over their head and work, and said he knew well that “if I talk about this, some will think that the Pope is communist.”
Francis has already been branded a Marxist by conservative US commentators for his unbridled criticism of capitalist excesses, for his demand that governments redistribute social benefits to the needy, and his call for the Church to be a “poor Church, for the poor.” His speech Tuesday broadened his concerns to include the environment, the rights of farmers to have land, and for young people to have work. He promised that the concerns of the poor would be highlighted in his upcoming encyclical on ecology and the environment. “Today I want to unite my voice with yours and accompany you in your fight,” he said.
Among those in the audience were Argentine cartoneros, who sift through garbage looking for recyclable goods. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was particularly close to the cartoneros; as Pope he has maintained his support for their plight.
Francis also had an informal meeting Tuesday with fiery Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was part of the delegation.
Pope Francis urged an international gathering of grassroots social activists to struggle against the “structural causes” of poverty and inequality, with a “revolutionary” program drawn from the Gospels. “The poor no longer wait, they seek to be protagonists, they organize, study, work, demand and, above all, practice that special solidarity that exists among those who suffer, among the poor,” the Pope said. The Pope said solidarity entails struggling “against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and shelter, the denial of social and labor rights,” and confronting what he called the “empire of money.”
Most of what the Pope said recalled his earlier statements on social justice, especially his November 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel” — literally “The Joy of the Gospel”), but he delivered the remarks with a strong note of personal encouragement to the activists, telling them: “Today I want to join my voice to yours and accompany you in your struggle.”
Pope Francis said Catholic social teaching defines “land, shelter and work” as “sacred rights,” yet “if I speak of this some people conclude that the Pope is a communist.”
Deploring the displacement of his “brother peasants” from their “native soil,” the Pope warned that traditional rural life is at “risk of extinction.” He also said “financial speculation” on food prices was to blame for the starvation of millions around the world.
“I’ve said and I repeat: a home for every family,” Pope Francis said. “Family and shelter go hand in hand.”
Pope Francis reiterated his earlier criticisms of rising youth unemployment, in Europe and elsewhere, as reflective of a “throwaway culture” that treats people as leftovers. Other examples, he said, include society’s neglect of the aged, low fertility rates, malnourished children and abortion.
Noting that he was addressing representatives of non-unionized workers such as trash pickers, street peddlers and artisans, the Pope said “every worker, whether or not part of a formal system of salaried work, has the right to a decent wage, social security and a pension plan.”
The Pope said social justice also requires peace and environmental protection, both of which the global economic system inevitably threatens.
“There are economic systems that must make war in order to survive,” he said. “An economic system centered on the god of money also needs to plunder nature, plunder nature, in order to maintain the frenetic pace of consumption inherent in it.” Francis said that he was writing an encyclical on ecology, and promised the activists the document would reflect their concerns.
The Pope warned the activists to avoid destructive extremism. Their work “must be done with courage, but also with intelligence; with tenacity, but without fanaticism; with passion, but without violence,” he said, and recommended that social movements take their “guide of action” from the Gospels, specifically the beatitudes and the 25th Chapter of Matthew, in which Jesus says: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
At the end of his speech, which lasted more than half an hour, the Pope gave the more than 150 activists rosaries he said had been made by “artisans, trash pickers and workers from the popular economic of Latin America.” Bolivian President Evo Morales, an outspoken and controversial critic of globalization, who the Vatican noted was attending not as a head of state but as the leader of a grassroots social movement, met informally with Pope Francis later the same day.
Francis: “Our Economic Systems Needs to Center on the Person”
“This meeting of Popular Movements is a sign, a great sign,” Pope Francis told his audience. “You came to be in the presence of God, of the Church… [to speak about] a reality that is often silenced. The poor not only suffer from injustice, but they also fight against it.”
The Holy Father also emphasized that it is not sufficient to be content with “illusory promises,” and that anesthetizing or taming problems at hand does not solve them. He called for solidarity amidst trying times.
“Solidarity is a word that… means more than some generous, sporadic acts. It is to think and act in terms of the community… It is also to fight against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and [loss of] land, housing, and social and labor rights. It is to confront the destructive effects of the ‘Empire of Money’: forcible displacements and migrations, human and drug trafficking, war, violence, and all of these realities that many of you suffer and that we all are called to address and transform. Solidarity, understood in its most profound sense, is a way of making history, and that is what the Popular Movements movement is doing,” he said.
Pope Francis spoke about the monopolization of land, deforestation, appropriation of water, and inadequate agrochemicals, which have deprived many farmers of sufficient land. He pointed out that in rural communities, land is ingrained in lifestyle and culture. For these afflicted farmers, separation from land is not purely physical, it is also “existential and spiritual,” he said.
Additionally, the Pope said the need for agricultural reform is ingrained in the Church’s social doctrine. “Please,” he urged, “continue to fight for the dignity of rural families, for water, for life and for all that can benefit from the fruits of land.”
Also on the agenda were the problems of housing and employment. Insisting that every family has a right to a home, the Pope said, “Today there are many families without housing, either because they never had it or because they lost it for various reasons.” The Holy Father stressed that this was unacceptable; that in neighborhoods families grow and plant their foundations. It is a shame, he said, that in large cities there is an abundance of neglect in regards to housing “millions of our brothers and neighbors, including children.”
The Pope went on to renounce the use of euphemisms to soften the harsh realities that plague society today. Specifically, he referred to the use of the term, “street situation,” which is used to describe the homeless. “We live in cities that build towers, malls, and businesses, but abandon the parts where the marginalized reside — the peripheries.”
Lastly, the Pope spoke about the growing problem of unemployment in Europe and around the world. “Today, the phenomenon of exploitation and oppression has taken on a new dimension,” he said. “The centre of our whole social and economic system needs to be about the person, the image of God, created for the universe.” Instead, we live in a world that is largely infatuated with the attainment of wealth, and that the economy is prioritized over the human person. He pointed out that the unemployment of the youth in Italy has reached 40%; and that in some parts of Europe, that number is even higher. “We need to change this,” he said. “We need to return to making human dignity the center.”