In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis clearly states that the common good cannot be defined in terms of majority opinion. This would be tantamount to moral relativism. He writes: “The solution is not relativism. Under the guise of tolerance, relativism ultimately leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, to be defined as they see fit. ‘In the absence of objective truth or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs…we should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient. When the culture itself is corrupt, and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary imposition or obstacles to be avoided…Relativism always brings the risk that some or other alleged truth will be imposed by the powerful or the clever. Yes, ‘when it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal.”
The right to private property is derived from the principle of subsidiarity. It is not possible for individuals, families and small groups to attain their integral human development on their own efforts and initiatives if they cannot possess private property. If property is held by the State, there will be little room for making full use of the human right of individual economic initiative. From this reality, we can also conclude that free markets are not in themselves absolute. They are necessary means that enable individuals to make use of their private property to identify what goods or services they will offer to consumers, who in turn should be free to choose from the variety of goods and services offered by individual producers. This is what a market is: the free interaction between producers and consumers. Through the combination of the right to private property and the existence of free markets, the world has seen significant economic progress during the last three to four centuries. More recently, the evidence of the wisdom of respecting the right to private property and the freeing of markets has been demonstrated by the near miraculous economic success of China in redeeming some 700 million Chinese from dehumanizing poverty.
It is equally evident, however, that free market forces alone have resolved neither the problem of mass poverty in many developing economies nor the great inequality of income and wealth in the developed ones. The awaited “trickle down” effect never came. As we have experienced in our own country, market forces have not liberated some 20 percent of our population from poverty. Markets have to be complemented with strong action from the State in addressing the problems of undernourishment, inadequate education and training, and insufficient rural infrastructures, among others. Society has to first meet the needs of those who are too underfed, too unhealthy, too unschooled and too unskilled to benefit from free markets. The Pope has witnessed similar situations in which free markets were not able to address the problem of mass poverty in many Latin American countries, including his own Argentina. That is why he famously wrote in another encyclical entitled “The Joy of the Gospel”: “Today we also have to say ‘thou halt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?…Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the secularized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
The preferential option for the poor is another primary social principle of social ethics. This preferential option has nothing to do with the class struggle that communists foment.
It never gives license to anyone to espouse a hatred for the rich. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote before he was elected to the Chair of Peter, the preferential option for the poor should neither be exclusive nor excluding. It cannot be exclusive in the sense that our only concern in helping the poor is their material being (as Marxists would claim because they do not believe in the existence of the spirit). Promoting the welfare of the poor should also focus on the non-economic dimensions of human existence such as the cultural, the moral, and the spiritual. I always remember with sadness what happened to a group of Catholic nuns during the height of Liberation Theology in the 1970s. Before they were infected with Marxist ideas, they used to be very active in teaching Catechism to the children of the poor. When they joined the leftist groups during the martial law regime, they stopped ministering to the spiritual needs of the poor because in their words, “the poor cannot eat doctrine.” So they completely focused on the bodily needs of the beneficiaries of their charitable works.
Pope Francis goes beyond alleviating material poverty when discussing the preferential option for the poor. He advises politicians that everything should be done to protect the status and dignity of the human person: “Politicians are doers, builders with ambitious goals, possessed of a broad, realistic and pragmatic gaze that looks beyond their own borders. Their biggest concern should not be about a drop in the polls, but about finding effective solutions to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime. Such is the magnitude of these situations, and their toll on innocent lives, that we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism that would assuage our consciences…” (To be continued)
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