The Co-op Pope

Pope Francis caused a lot of excitement during his papacy’s first year, and much of it was economic in nature. He has been making a whole variety of statements that have caused unease among those most comfortable with the established order. Francis has challenged the established capitalist way of doing business

But how might an alternative unfold? While state socialism has a well-know history of antagonism with religion, there is a wealth of models for voluntary, egalitarian and community-based models that allow for the participation of all. These cooperative forms are in many cases rooted in the earliest days of the movement that became Christianity. They are also supported by more than a century of papal pronouncements as well as parish organizing.

A Co-op Pope?

During his first year, Pope Francis embraced cooperative forms, likely influenced by the long history of Catholic cooperative organizing. This embrace was most clear during a papal audience held in October. Co-op leaders from Francis’ home country of Argentina, as well as key figures in the International Co-operative Alliance, spent most of an hour with the pope; ICA president Dame Pauline Green gave this description in her blog:

It’s true to say that we were all mightily impressed with The Pope’s intimate knowledge and understanding of our movement. All alone with no staff or advisers and not a note or briefing paper to be seen, he spoke our co-operative language during a 45 minute informal discussion. Stopping once with a laugh to apologise for giving us a sermon, the Pope argued that global leaders need to understand that co-ops are not just something for moments of crisis, but the way in which economic life should go in the future.

It seems that Francis was also touched by the encounter. A month later, his own message to the Third Festival of the Social Doctrine of the Church included this:

Also a thought on cooperation: I met several representatives of the world of cooperatives. We had a meeting here in this room some months ago. I was very consoled, and I think it is good news for everyone to hear that in responding to the crisis net profits have gone down while the employment level has been maintained. Work is so important. Work and the dignity of the person go hand in hand. Solidarity must also be applied to guarantee work; cooperation is an important element to ensure a plurality of presence among employers in the market. Today this is the subject of some misunderstanding even at the European level yet I maintain that failure to consider this form of presence as relevant in the world of production constitutes an impoverishment that leaves room for homologations and fails to promote difference and identity.

I remember — I was a teenager — I was 18 years old: it was 1954, and I heard my father speak on Christian cooperativism and from that moment I developed an enthusiasm for it, I saw that it was the way. It is precisely the road to equality, not to homogenity, but to equality in difference. Even economically it goes slowly. I remember that reflection my father gave: it goes forward slowly, but it is sure. When I hear some of the other economic theories, like that “of the commodities” — I don’t really know what it’s called in Italian — [the Pope is referring to an optimistic economic theory on the fall of prices of goods and the reduction of poverty]. Experience tells us that that way doesn’t work. (parenthetical in Vatican’s source document – AM)

I hope that all of you who are committed to cooperative reform, will keep alive the memory of their origins. The cooperative forms established by Catholics such as the implementation of Rerum Novarum bear witness to the power of faith, which today as then is capable of inspiring concrete action to respond to the needs of our people.

Francis has also appointed Cardinal Peter Turkson to act as an ongoing liaison to the cooperative movement. Turkson’s duties so far have included delivery of a message to the ICA conference in South Africa shortly after the audience:

Thus we note that the cooperative has been a fertile field we to exercise participation and subsidiarity, bases of cooperative economic structure to ensure the objectives themselves valuing the participation of each of the partners. The performance of these principles by cooperatives has been: a valuable contribution to building democracy by explicitly encouraging the principle of participation, an important contribution to overcoming poverty, which identifies the most urgent needs people and promoted as protagonists of their own development, and an invaluable contribution to the establishment of peace by encouraging cooperative partnerships between movements in different regions fostering dialogue and fraternal cooperation between the societies of origin .

I haven’t yet encountered a clear public reference to the massive Catholic-rooted cooperatives of northern Italy, the Basque Country, Nova Scotia or Quebec, although I believe that the “Rerum Novarum” is an indirect reference (see below).

No Blessings for Capitalism

Francis’ stance toward capitalism provides a stark contrast.

During January, Francis sent a message to the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, where the world’s elite was openly fretting about how they are sitting at the top of a house of cards caused by wealth disparities. The organizers are worried enough to create something called A New Social Covenant; it sounds nice but we shall see what fruit it bears.

Some have reported that Francis “blessed” the gathering in Davos. But while he did close with the words, “I invoke divine blessings on you and the participants of the Forum, as well as on your families and all your work,” it is important to note that this invocation is something altogether different than the endorsement that is usually implied by the word “blessing.” Rather, the actual text of the message reveals that Francis is calling the assembly to task for its failure to create real economic progress for all, and invokes blessings in apparent recognition that God’s help will be needed for this crowd’s repentance.

In the context of your meeting, I wish to emphasize the importance that the various political and economic sectors have in promoting an inclusive approach which takes into consideration the dignity of every human person and the common good. I am referring to a concern that ought to shape every political and economic decision, but which at times seems to be little more than an afterthought.

This is a personal concern: While Francis was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998-2013), he witnessed firsthand his country’s economic collapse at the hands of capitalist globalization. He was familiar with one of the worker-owned recuperated workplaces that made Argentina an inspiring model for the world – popularized by the 2004 documentary The Take.

The Gospel Against Consumerism

We should also look at Francis’ writings.

The most prominent of the pope’s statements was Evangelii Gaudium, which has been described (somewhat inaccurately) as a “manifesto” against capitalism. This label jibes with the accusations of Marxism popular on the economic right. The Holy Father’s writing – titled The Joy of the Gospel in English – is not a papal encyclical, a specific type of document that establishes Church doctrine and is perhaps a closer analog to a party manifesto. It is in fact a “papal exhortation,” a guide to Catholics offering them encouragement to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Students of Marx will recall that this was not a common theme of his, although there is some overall resonance in the economic values described.

On the other hand, there are quite a few encyclicals that already do establish an economic doctrine that is squarely at odds with the ways of the world. These social encyclicals run all the way back to Pope Leo XII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”). That earlier writing helped set the Tyrolean Alps afire with an economic revival that laid the foundation for one of the world’s great cooperative economies – which has transformed life for Catholic and secular Italians alike.

Evangelii Gaudium is a papal exhortation: encouragement for members of the Catholic Church to act in certain ways as they preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not primarily a critique of capitalism; it is, first and foremost, a religious statement. However, in some ways its non-doctrinal nature heightens the power of the writing by its simple emphasis upon the spiritual impact of economics. To Francis, consumerism tempts us to accept capitalism’s rule of wealth over people, and is therefore a grave obstacle to preaching the Gospel. This obstacle is presented prominently, right in the second paragraph of a document that approaches 50,000 words:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience…That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

There is much more writing like this, particularly in chapters two and four. But in case we might be tempted to squirm away from dozens of passages and thousands of words driving home the message, the Holy Father leaves no wiggle room here:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

The capitalist economy is based on exclusion and inequality, and results in death. It therefore violates one of the Ten Commandments. No more avoiding the issue. Anyone who intends to live a good life as a Catholic simply must find another way of engaging with economics.

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One Response to The Co-op Pope

  1. Pingback: The cooperative way to reduce inequality & get out of poverty | Closer TogetherCloser Together

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