Pope Francis’s historic, soaring encyclical on ecological and economic justice was made public just hours after the horrifying murders in the South Carolina church, where nine African Americans were gunned down by a young white man. The juxtaposition makes me weep in the realization that such violence is yet more evidence of a brokenness in our world described so eloquently by the pope.
In his encyclical, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of our interconnectedness. “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” He also returned again and again to the injustice of inequality and “the intimate relationships between [people who are] poor and the fragility of the planet.”
The encyclical strongly criticized consumerist, profit-seeking economies like ours as economies of exclusion, where short-term gains take precedence over long-term justice. Those who are left out – most often people who have been pushed into poverty – are denied just access to water, food, housing and other necessities of life, which are all basic human rights. Marketplace solutions favored by many will not address these needs, and the desire of some to privatize water and other resources will cause enormous harm to already struggling families.
Those who push technology as the answer to many of our problems are usually seeking short-term results, most often higher profits, at the expense of those at the economic margins. We see the results when low-income workers lose jobs to technology substitutes thought to improve efficiency and lower costs.
And, of course, it is most often poor communities that suffer the most from environmental degradation. People in poor communities are more often exposed to pollutants than those in wealthy areas, and they are less able to afford insurance and other protections during extreme weather events.
Pope Francis calls on all of us, especially those in power, to find bold, integrative solutions to all of these injustices. Those with the most wealth and power owe a “social debt” to people at the margins. They are therefore obligated to make sure they have all that is essential to their survival and wellbeing.
As the pope puts it, “Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good. In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.”
In the end, the pope is calling for spiritual conversion and “an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” Persistent poverty is one of our nation’s most urgent problems, and it deserves an urgent response.