“Laudato Si’” and Its Preferential Option for the Poor (Part Three): the Guiding Principle for Restructuring the World Economy

option for poor

This is the last installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. It attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.”  This third part addresses the meaning and centrality of that option.

In his critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it (reviewed in Part Two of this series), Pope Francis called explicitly for “structural change” in the world economy.  He said, “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”

But what “structural change” does the pope have in mind?

Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ offer the answer. Their “preferential option for the poor” provides the guiding principle and turns the present economic order exactly on its head. This implies that if the present order is possible, so is its opposite.

That is to say that the present neo-liberal order is structured according to a “preferential option for the rich.”  Its sponsoring question is how can we make sure that the banks, corporations, and 1% prosper? Economists explain such concern by various “trickle-down theories.”  If priority is accorded the welfare of the rich, the theorists say, the wealth produced will trickle down creating a “rising tide that lifts all boats.”  [The pope rejects such theories out-of-hand as historically disproven. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he even calls them homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59).]

By way of contrast, the pope’s “preferential option for the poor” begins at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?

Laudato Si’ goes even further. It expands moral concern beyond human beings to all forms of life. It asks how we can insure the survival of the planet in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.

None of this means abandoning market dynamics altogether.

It does mean, however, controlling them according to the principle some have expressed in the words, “as much market as possible and as much planning as necessary.” This means maximizing market forces, but controlling them as necessitated by prioritization of the needs of the poor including the environment – once again by the preferential option for the poor.

In practice this entails at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces.

Impossible you say? Not at all. To repeat: if economies can be structured according to a preferential option for the rich, they can be restructured to prioritize the needs and rights of the poor and the environment.

That’s the Global South hope and conviction Laudato Si’ embodies: another world is indeed possible.


Will Laudato Si’ have its desired effect? That, of course remains to the seen. However, it undeniably has in Pope Francis a powerful proponent.

That is, despite remaining Stalinist skepticism, Pope Francis might well be the most powerful man in the world. Certainly, he is the planet’s most influential moral leader. What empower him, of course, are not the military divisions in which Josef Stalin placed confidence, but his extraordinary consciousness of the unity of all creation expressed repeatedly in his every pronouncement and especially in his recent encyclical. What sets him apart from the Obamas and Putins of the world is his equally unusual courage, compassion, charisma, and credibility.

Additionally, the pope has surpassing constituency. He heads a community of 1.2 billion followers. And this does not even count the untold millions of non-Catholics who admire him and his thought leadership.

With such support, the powerful message of Laudato Si’, and his plans to bring that message to the U.N. and U.S. Congress in September, as well as to influence the Climate Summit in Paris next September, who knows what changes will result? Who knows how he will influence the U.S. general elections in 2016?

In other words, Francis may stand on the brink of surpassing the stature of Leo XIII and John Paul II in terms of changing the world.

Defenders of the old order are already shaking in their boots.

“Laudato Si’” and Its Preferential Option for the Poor (Part Two): Pope Francis’ Critique of Capitalism

Dung of Devil

This is the second installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. Overall, the series attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.”  This second part addresses Pope Francis’ critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it.

Pope Francis’ Critique of Capitalism

The first entry in this series on Laudato Si contextualized the significance of its author’s origins in the Global South. It argued that till Francis, Catholic social teaching had largely focused on Western and Eastern Europe. The social pronouncements of Italian popes were largely concerned with the problems of Western Europe and the threatened loss of the working class to the allures of socialism and communism. Beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, the Italians set the stage for the introduction of Europe’s extensive welfare state.

With the election of a Polish and subsequently of a German pope, papal focus shifted to Eastern Europe and the dethroning of communism there. Pope John Paul II and his right hand man, Josef Ratzinger (later to become Benedict XVI) cooperated with the Reagan administration (and specifically with the CIA’s William Casey) in facilitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With that demise achieved, it appeared to most that capitalism had won a definitive victory. Corporate globalization stood virtually unchallenged.

However, all of this changed with the ascent of Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio to the papal throne in 2013. As the first pope from Latin America, Pope Francis has repeatedly called capitalism’s “final victory” into question. No longer focusing on Europe (western or eastern), he shifted focus to the Global South, to the poverty colonialism and unfettered capitalism had caused there.

He focused on connections between deregulated markets and the rape of the Earth Mother indigenous Catholics of the Andes called Pachamama. Without apology, he espoused a “preferential option for the poor,” and spoke clearly about the rejection of the neoliberal globalized order lionized by the corporate elite.

Such sentiments were nowhere more clearly expressed than in the speeches delivered by Pope Francis during his summer “homecoming” trip to Latin America. In written form, they were evident in his landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ and in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

Addressing the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Francis traced today’s global problems back to their origins in European colonialism beginning in 1492. But he also identified new forms of colonialism exercised through corporations, loan agencies, “free trade” treaties, and imposition of “austerity measures.”

Such actors and policies subordinate states to outside powers which also exercise control through misguided policies ostensibly aimed at controlling drug trafficking, political corruption, and terrorism. More subtly, external powers colonize, destroy local cultures and foster cultural uniformity through communications monopolies, which the pope described as “ideological colonialism.”

“Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new,” he said.

The pope was completely outspoken. He went on to criticize capitalism-as-we-know-it as “an invisible thread” connecting problems of world poverty, worker exploitation, landlessness among farmers, homelessness, and destruction of the natural environment. That system imposes the mentality of profit at any price without concern for its impact on displaced peasants and workers or for its destructive effects on “Mother Earth.”

This is indeed capitalism-as-we-know-it.

The system, he said “is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”

Though some have criticized the pope for stepping outside his area of competence, his condemnation of the reigning economic system is specifically biblical, theological, and moral.

Like the prophets of the Jewish Testament, he identifies “the existing system” with idolatry, the most serious of biblical sins. In his strongest condemnation yet, Francis quoted the 4th century sage, Basil of Caesarea, calling today’s capitalism “the dung of the devil” – i.e. the excrement of evil personified. Stronger language can hardly be imagined.

Theologically, Francis echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.” The existing system, the pope said, “runs counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.

Morally, then, the pope called working against capitalism-as-we-know-it – “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in “Evangelii Gaudium,” where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”

(Next installment: the “other world” Francis sees as possible)

A Baptismal Homily: Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly, May You Be Like Markendeya, the Mystic; May We All Be


Last Friday (July 3rd), our family had the joy of baptizing our daughter’s and son-in-law’s fourth child, Markandeya Jackson Lehnerd Reilly. I had the privilege of performing the baptism – as I have for each of Maggie and Kerry’s children:  Eva (6 years old), Oscar (4), and Orlando (3). I performed the baptism (with its readings, songs, litany, profession of faith, and rich symbols of water, oil, fire, and new clothes) just off the dock in front of our house in Canadian Lakes, Michigan.

Twenty-five people (all relatives from Peggy’s side of the family) were present. The event was part of a mini-family reunion for Peggy’s siblings and their families. We were all together for about a week celebrating the Fourth of July.

It was great fun.

Here is a brief reflection I gave after reading about Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of his cousin, John,  as described in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

Today we celebrate the baptism of Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. He has that name because he comes to us from India, where he spent his earliest moments of in utero life.

I first came across the name, Markandeya in the writings of my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran a native of the Kerala State in India – which many of us here visited not long ago.

Easwaran says that each morning, his grandmother – his spiritual teacher – would go to the temple for Morning Prayer and return with a flower. She’d put it behind her grandson’s ear and pray, “May you be like Markandeya.”

Markendeya is the legendary mystic from ancient India who achieved enlightenment at the age of 16.

Mystics, of course, are spiritual masters. They have realized that: (1) we all have within us a spark of the divine, (2) that spark can be realized (i.e. we can live from that place of divinity); (3) it’s the purpose of life to do so, and (4) once we’ve realized the divine within ourselves, we’ll see it in every other human being and in all of creation.

In any case, Markandeya was one of those mystics. His story goes like this: His parents longed for a child and prayed to God (under the name Shiva) for a son.

Their prayer was granted.

But they had a choice, they could either have a son who would be a great devotee of Shiva and live a short life, or have a less-devoted son who would live a long life. Markandeya’s parents chose the former. As a result, they were told their son would achieve enlightenment, but would die on his 16th birthday.

Markandeya, of course, became a great devotee of Shiva whose name he lisped from his very first days in his cradle. Early on he became enlightened – capable of reaching uncommon depths of meditative unity with the divine.

But then his 16th birthday came.  His parents tearfully told him of the conditions of his birth. Yama, the king of death would soon come for him. On hearing this, Markandeya sat down and entered into deep meditation.

Soon Yama came seeking his victim. But when he entered the room, Shiva rose up from within Markandeya. With one hand on the youth’s head and the other pointing his trident at Yama, he commanded, “Don’ you know that I am Mrityunjaya, the conqueror of death? You have no power over me or over those devoted to me. Markandeya will never die!  Be gone!”

Trembling like a leaf, Yama returned to the underworld.

Today we baptize Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. With baptism he enters the community of those who would follow another great mystic, Jesus the Christ. According to our faith, Jesus is our Mrityunjaya, the Great Conqueror of death. Death, we believe, has no dominion over Jesus or over us, his followers.

Jesus’ teaching included the mystical truths that, like him, we are all daughters and sons of God and that the Kingdom of God is within us. His disciple, Paul of Tarsus taught that we are all temples of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus’ Spirit lives within each of us. It is our purpose in life to be channels of the Holy Spirit and bring about the kingdom of God in this world.

Today we’re here to embrace that vocation on Markandeya’s behalf and to re-embrace it for ourselves.

So our prayer for this child today is that he might be like Jesus with whom he is identified in this baptismal ceremony.

May he be like Markandeya.

May we all be like Jesus and Markandeya.

St. Francis or Donald Trump? Pope Francis or the Frackers? You Decide.

donald trump

The lineaments of right-wing criticisms of Pope Francis’ new encyclical “Laudato Si’” are becoming clearer by the day. A critique by Ross Douthat’s appeared in the June 21st edition of the New York Times.

Two days later, David Brooks took his stab in the same newspaper, writing a column called “Fracking and the Franciscans.” The title of Brooks’ article introduced specifically spiritual note into the rebuttal of the pope’s letter. In effect, it asks us to decide between St. Francis’ approach to nature (the pope’s ideal) and that of the fracking industry. Brooks clearly prefers the latter.

More specifically, Brooks’ op-ed makes clear the exact point of diversion between the pope and his conservative critics. On the one hand, the pope is calling for a “bold cultural revolution” – a spiritual revolution – based on love and compassion for the earth and on a “preferential option for the poor.”

On the other hand, Francis’ critics see that as “unrealistic” (in Brooks’ words). They prefer working within the given political and economic framework. For them, a society based on “harnessed” greed and self-interest is better than one based on love and compassion for the poor. There is no need for spiritual change. In short, greed is good. As David Brooks says, “in the end, purity of heart backfires.”

Douthat had earlier moved in the same direction by disparaging what he saw as excessive negativity in the pope’s letter.  He accused the pope of overlooking the unprecedented reduction in global poverty that characterizes our era. Things are not as bad for the poor as the Holy Father would have it. No need to prioritize the interests of the world’s poor majority.

In arguing that way, the columnist overlooked not only the deceptive reasoning behind World Bank poverty measurements. He also ignored the pope’s broadened definition of poverty to include unparalleled impoverishment of the natural environment.

In Douthat’s eyes, the pontiff also errs by downplaying and even rejecting the remedial capabilities of market dynamics and technological innovation. Who knows, he argues, they might be sufficient to solve what the pope describes as an unprecedented crisis. Let’s wait and see.

That’s the conservative position: keep doing what we’re doing; things aren’t as bad as they say; who knows, they might work out in the end.

In his own column, David Brooks takes up that thread not only reiterating that the pope’s negativity overlooks the unprecedented reduction in poverty brought about by market forces, but adding that countries made rich by those same forces are less polluted than their poorer counterparts.

If we followed the pope’s reasoning, Brooks says, we’d all aspire to be poor like St. Francis. And where would that leave us? There’d be no “Asian Miracle,” no technology-based American energy revolution as exemplified in fracking. And don’t worry about fracking, Brooks assures us: the government EPA and the conservative Breakthrough Institute have certified that it produces no widespread harm to water supplies and actually represents “a net environmental plus.”

Face it, Brooks contends: history shows that short-term pollution leads to long-term growth and affluence. Again, the best social programs are based on harnessed greed and self-interest. In the end Franciscan purity of heart stifles progress and wealth accumulation.

So which is better a society based on love and compassion or one based on greed and self-interest? Who should be our guide – someone like St. Francis or Donald Trump? That is the question. At root it is a spiritual question.

Pope Francis has his answer. New York Times and its columnists have theirs.

Each of us as individuals and all of us as a community must decide.