Most journalists and political commentators covering papal politics have been consumed with the Church’s recent Synod on the Family that concerned social and religious issues of modern marriage and family life. Some conservative commentators warned that Pope Francis and the Synod itself was sowing “confusion” among the flock, while others praised the Pope for providing a breath of fresh air into traditional Catholic thought. Nevertheless, the Synod brought together various groups in a respectful way to build bridges in an attempt to find a common good. While no decisions were made at the Synod, it certainly laid the foundation for future reform within Catholic Social Teaching on family life.
While consumed with the Synod, the Catholic community, journalists, and politicos missed or deliberately ignored an equally important and much more critical populist speech by Pope Francis at the Conference of Popular Movements in Rome last month that concerned the importance of community organizing and poverty.
In the speech, the Pope praises the conference organizers for their community organizing in getting low-income people and the dispossessed to organize and speak out for themselves. He reminded the audience, “The poor not only suffer injustice but they also struggle against it!” He added that popular movements are necessary “to revitalize our democracies, so often kidnapped by innumerable factors. It is impossible to imagine a future for society without the active participation of the great majorities.”
Pope Francis was critical of both liberal and conservative solutions to poverty (such as some welfare programs) that “go in one direction, either to anaesthetize or to domesticate.” Further, he seems genuinely angry with those who use euphemisms to describe poor people, suggesting that to identify the issues as matters of “segregation” or “disenfranchisement” masks not just the seriousness of the problems but the deliberate injustices they involve. As the Pope puts it, “behind euphemisms there is a crime.”
He noted the special solidarity that exists among the poor and explores its meaning beyond “sporadic generosity.” Solidarity means “to think and act like a community” in “fighting over the structural causes of poverty, inequality, lack of work, housing, and the denial of labor and social rights…and to confront the destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacement, painful emigration, the traffic of persons, drugs, war, violence and all those realities that many of you suffer and that we are called on to transform.”
He understands that talk like this will lead some “to say that the Pope is a Communist,” but he dismisses such criticism, saying that his critics “don’t understand that the love of the poor is at the heart of the gospel” and that the “struggle for land, roof, and work are sacred rights.” That is, he grounds his belief in no overriding political orthodoxy but rather in religion and human dignity.
The Synod and speech got me thinking about the Pope’s approach in dealing with difficult issues and what model Pope Francis might provide for the future of the Democratic Party. For example, the recent midterm election debacle has been most often attributed to demographic factors. For example, the poor turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and women and the inability to attract white voters and the shrinking middle class have been the most common explanations for its 2014 electoral collapse. But commentators like Harold Meyerson have argued that demographics alone cannot explain the results of the midterm election nor “save” the Democratic Party. Rather, Meyerson suggests that Democrats failed to provide a clear and consistent message regarding economic inequality and wages that appealed to the struggling poor, working and middle classes, Latinos, African Americans, and millennials. Without a clear economic message, Howard Dean asked unapologetically “Where the Hell is the Democratic Party” and chided the Democratic Party leadership and operatives that “You cannot win if you are afraid!” But afraid of what? My guess is Democrats are afraid of angering their corporate and business supporters by addressing issues of inequality and poverty in any but a timid and incremental way.
This is where Pope Francis’s approach could help. First, the Democrats could follow the Pope’s model and bring together various factions for a serious discussion about the future of the party in moral and ethical terms. In the process, they could engage in community organizing and pursue the common good of ending poverty and inequality. They could also build a measure of solidarity and support on moral terms for those experiencing the injustices, the struggling working and middle class and those trying to help organize the struggles. Put differently, less politically expedient efforts to garner electoral support and more solidarity and substantive reform based on moral and ethical stands grounded in human dignity.
Such an approach will worry many Democratic politicians and their apparatchiks who cower in the face of uncertain polling data and angering their corporate patrons. No doubt, some will join with Republicans and call this “class warfare.” Some will claim that Democrats can’t win using populist themes, especially in red and purple states. But politicians like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio prove otherwise.
Today, Ohio Republicans control all executive-branch positions, the state Supreme Court, 12 of 16 U.S. House seats, and huge majorities in the state House and Senate. Yet, despite the Ohio’s Republican dominance and having $60 million against him, Senator Brown easily won his last election with broad community organizing with a working class and populist agenda that helped carry President Obama in Ohio.
The country is distressed over the level of inequality and the forty-year decline of the middle class, and we’re tired of euphemisms surrounding poverty and austerity. The Pew Research Center shows that Americans are overwhelmingly concerned with widening inequality. When given an opportunity to reduce inequality, such as increasing the minimum wage, they overwhelmingly vote in favor, even in historically red states. Now is the time for Democrats to follow the Pope Francis’s iconoclastic approach and develop the type of value-based agenda suggested by Meyerson. That could give new meaning to what it means to be a Democrat.