Op-Ed

Can pope help the U.S. refocus capitalism to make the poor a priority?

Michael Rivage-Seul 
of Berea is a former  Catholic priest.
Michael Rivage-Seul of Berea is a former Catholic priest.

Pope Francis, perhaps the most admired spiritual and thought leader in today's world, arrives in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. He's coming to the center of the system his encyclical, Laudato Si', criticizes so harshly.

The pope will speak to a Congress peppered with climate-change deniers and Republican presidential candidates, fully half of whom describe themselves as devout Catholics. To a man, they disagree with Pope Francis on what he describes as our time's most pressing moral issue.

No doubt he will remind his opponents that the invisible thread tying together climate change, world poverty, war and a host of other problems is capitalism as we know it.

But they'll ask: What is the alternative? And isn't the pope aware of our country's proud tradition of independence? Who among us would ever endorse (as the pope suggests) handing over to some international body the right to override U.S. laws for the greater good of environmental protection? It's simply not the American way.

And, of course, the pope has his answers.

To the first question about alternatives, he offers his "preferential option for the poor." That guiding principle turns the present economic order exactly on its head.

The present system is already structured according to a "preferential option for the rich." It makes sure that the banks, corporations and one percent prosper. Economists explain such insurance by various trickle-down theories. The pope rejects those theories out-of-hand as historically disproved. He calls them ineffective, unjust at their roots and even homicidal.

By way of contrast, the pope's preferential option for the poor begins at the bottom of the economic pyramid. It asks how can we ensure workers have jobs and that everyone is decently fed, clothed, housed, educated and cured when ill?

None of this means abandoning market dynamics altogether.

It does mean, however, that governments intervene in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to food, housing, education, health care and jobs with living wages. It means regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest. Only afterward does it entail turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces.

If economies can be structured according to a preferential option for the rich, they can be restructured to favor the poor.

As for the U.S. never submitting its legislative power to the possibility of being overridden by some international body, we should know that we already have submitted.

U.S. membership in the World Trade Organization, the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and those of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership already allow international bodies to nullify U.S. laws such as those protecting our air and water.

If such national laws are ruled to interfere with the expected profits of multinational corporations, the laws can be rendered null and void, regardless of the environmental sensibilities of U.S. citizens.

In other words, there is precedent for our acceptance of international bodies with binding authority to legislate about environmental deregulation.

The pope is merely requesting that authority be given instead to an international body tasked with protecting the environment rather than allowing its further degradation.

The logic of it all is inescapable.

It will be interesting to watch our legislators squirm.

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