20 January 2019
The Australian Jesuits

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Scathing critique of neoliberal capitalism

Cecily McNeill |  31 March 2018

Two stories of indigenous life on either side of the Tasman show how institutional racism works to maintain oppression, something Pope Francis rails against in Laudato Si’. The 2015 encyclical does not use the word “racism” but it is implied, as Sr Karen Donahue suggests, in the Pope’s critique of the neo-liberal economic system which fails to take account of its impact on humanity and the environment. See for example, LS #56.

“No public figure of the Pope’s stature has offered such a scathing critique of neoliberal capitalism, the economic system that dominates the world today and which puts financial gain above all other considerations.”


Meanwhile through Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand we are presented with an insight into how charity and justice work. They travel together as different sides of the same coin. The Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara is reported as saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Caritas Aotearoa NZ knows the importance of backing up its emergency aid with practical, longer-term help. When Tonga suffered under Cyclone Gita’s devastation in February, Caritas was ready with an emergency response.


But below we can read of Caritas’ efforts to work with the Tongans for sustained improvements in their living environment. An account of using solar power panels to create a more reliable power supply shows the importance of looking for longer term solutions. Caritas is also raising the profile of climate change, which is a well-documented bogey in the rise in ever increasing cyclonic devastation, by supporting government initiatives.


Helder Camara’s point about being called a communist refers to the difficulty in challenging institutions of government and society that often maintain people in poverty. Social Justice work can make one feel uncomfortable in many ways. This is why folk sainthood comes with being kind to the poor but not necessarily when questions are asked about global practices that affect the disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis and his predecessors back to the first “social” encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum 1891, have critiqued changes in social conditions. The world had seen some 80 years of Industrial Revolution when small cottage industries were replaced by machines in factories. There followed in 1848 a series of political upheavals in Europe. These were aimed at removing old monarchical structures and creating independent national states. Rerum Novarum, on the relationship between capital and labour, began a tradition of the Church looking at what was happening in society from the human perspective through the lens of scripture.

A close reading of these documents with the guidance of, for example, the analysis Sandie Cornish gives on her website https://social-spirituality.net/ rewards with an understanding of what the Church meant by naming its Vatican II document Gaudium et spes (the church in the modern world).


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