In the last month, Pope Francis issued a new encyclical Fratelli Tutti. The circular letter covered a huge range of issues from the death penalty to racism to war, but the part I want to focus on are his comments concerning individualism and our approach to economics.
On individualism, the Pope was scathing, describing it in these terms:
“We are more alone than ever in…a world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life. …As a rule, the advance of this kind of globalism strengthens the identity of the more powerful, who can protect themselves, but it tends to diminish the identity of the weaker and poorer regions, making them more vulnerable and dependent.” He goes on to say “Radical individualism is a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate, for it is clever. It makes us believe that everything consists in giving free rein to our own ambitions, as if by pursuing ever greater ambitions and creating safety nets we would somehow be serving the common good.”
Of course as Christians, we all know that a philosophy of individualism is far from the gospel that Jesus Christ taught. He told us that the greatest command was to love God and love our neighbour. And in the parable of the good Samaritan, he goes on to define for us who our neighbour is. No longer are they merely the person down the street, the one like us, the one from our neighbourhood; nor indeed is the neighbour simply the persons we like, the friends who comes round for tea. No, according to Jesus the neighbour is the one not like us, the one who we may not like. This is the stark point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. As such, an individualistic mindset that focusses only on the self cannot be any part of our gospel. As Christians, we must think of others.
What is most interesting in this is the way that the Pope ties this critique of individualism to a critique of much economic thinking. He says that we have allowed the "transnational economic powers" to "operate with the principle of “divide and conquer”. “They have created increased wealth for the few and inequality/poverty for many.” "While one part of humanity lives in opulence, another part sees its own dignity denied, scorned or trampled upon, and its fundamental rights discarded or violated". This includes the denial of rights and dignity to women. He qualifies the right to private property quoting Chrysostom and St Gregory the Great to the effect that poverty creates a right to sustenance so that a failure to share wealth is in reality theft from the poor. Our neoliberal economic system is a failed experiment; an economics and business ethics that prioritises people and community is required, combined with strengthening of international institutions as a way to resist corporate power. "[Covid] has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom...in addition to recovering a sound political life that is not subject to the dictates of finance, we must put dignity back at the centre and on that pillar build the alternative social structures we need". It is heady stuff, and well worth a read.
The Bible And Tax - Revd David Haslam's in-depth exploration of the Biblical precedents for the Tax Justice Campaign with reference to both the Old and New Testaments and to theologian Ched Myers' ideas of 'Sabbath Economics'. Physical copies can be purchased at a cost of £1 per copy, £5 for 6 or £10 for 12. Email us at mail (at) catj.org.uk for more information..