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On “The Paradox Of Abundance”

On February 13, L’Osservatore Romano (English edition) printed a full-page text of Pope Francis’ message to the Milan “Expo of Ideas.” Its theme was: “Nourish the Planet, Energy for Life.” Pope Bergoglio brought up again his now familiar suggestions about how to handle poverty and hunger.

Pope Francis recalled his address to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, November 20, 2014). There, he linked together “the production, accessibility, and availability of foodstuffs, climate change, and agricultural trade.” Our “first concern,” however, “must be the individual person, who lacks daily nourishment, who has given up thinking about life . . .and fights only for survival.” The pope acknowledged that many organizations exist to assist the hungry. He recalled John Paul II’s phrase “the paradox of abundance.”

We have plenty of food in the world, though the pope never seems to explain why we have this food available. But it does not reach everyone. Many studies of poverty and hunger are available: “Few topics are as likely to be manipulated by data, statistics, by national security demands, corruption, or by grim reference to the economic crisis.” The pope sees this situation as “nominalistic.” It “goes beyond reality without touching it.” Evidently, issues of national security, corruption, and economic crisis are seen as causing this failure to reach the individual hungry, not as issues with their own weight.

Pope Francis proposes three steps to rectify this situation. He first proposes that we must “resolve the structural causes of poverty. Let us remember that inequality is the root of all social ills.” The root of social ills is not money, sin, sloth, or ignorance. If we “fix” the structures, no more problems would ensue.

Benedict XVI, in Deus Caritas Est, noted that, even if we had everything in order at the economic and political level, we would still have much to do that could not and would not be solved by social reorganization alone. A world of total equality, as Aristotle suspected, would be one without much desire or concern about improvement. The motives and incentives for producing present abundance would soon dry up.

The poor, always:“Christ in the House of Simon” by Dieric Bouts, c. 1440

Pope Francis is undaunted: “It is necessary to resolve the root of the ills, which is inequality. To do this, there are several essential decisions to be made: to renounce the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and of financial speculation, and to act primarily on the structures of inequality.” News that marketplaces and financial institutions are “absolutely autonomous” with no government controls is news to me. I had always thought that, in places where we do have poorest who do not have daily bread, it was usually caused by government control and lack of a free market.

Pope Francis’ next proposal: to cure poverty is charity. He praises good politicians who work for the common good. Most classical thought on the difference between justice and charity held that political societies as such were not substances. Their mode of operation was via law and justice. Charity was something beyond politics. Societies that claim control over all aspects of social life were totalitarian. Charity, however, was a grace given to individual persons enabling them to go beyond justice to aid needy individuals in generosity because God first loved them.

Recalling what he said in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Bergoglio sees the problem in this way: “We need to be convinced that charity is the principle, not only of ‘micro-relationships (with friends, with family members, or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic, and political ones).” The politicians are to be courageous to “increase the goods of the earth and make them more available.”

The final papal suggestion has to do with ecology. Francis recalls this saying: “Men forgive, but the earth never does.” The purpose of the goods of the earth is to bring about “fairness and solidarity,” as the Compendium of Social Doctrine states. The Earth is to be configured to “give each one what is necessary to live.” So we are to respect dignity, witness to charity, and protect the earth.

This short papal exhortation plays down statistical data that would tell us just where these starving people are and the relative degree and nature of hunger. No one doubts that enough food is being produced. The pope seldom speaks of how and why this production came about. Many political and economic “structures” could never have produced such abundance. It is one thing to be poor in abundance, another in scarcity.

Alleviation of hunger is not the major concern of most political powers or religions, though it is one concern among others. Pope Bergoglio’s major premise is that “inequality” is the cause of these conditions. More than one paradox is implicit here. When everyone is made “equal,” no one, it is implied, will starve. The final paradox is that to have equality, we also need inequality of intelligence, generosity, and diligence.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.