Last week, John Gehring pointed to Pope Benedict XVI’s progressive legacy. Gehring noted Benedict’s opposition to unregulated capitalism and support for the redistribution of wealth. He also noted the pope’s strong environmental record in defense of creation. These are two legacies that I hope the next pope will continue.
In fact, there is much in Catholic social teaching that I hope the next pope will continue to support and raise to new levels of awareness. At the same time, it is essential that the next pope recognizes the changes that have occurred economically, socially, and politically over the last few decades and that he takes Catholic social teaching into the future with creativity and dynamism.
I hope to see the Church remain one of the strongest defenders of the poor on the planet. The Church is either the church of the poor or a sad, vapid shadow of itself. I hope the Church continues to advocate for policies that directly address and reduce poverty and ensure a safety net for all people. It is essential that the Church and the next Holy Father continue to teach that access to fundamental needs like food, clean water, housing, and healthcare are basic rights belonging to each person as a child of God. You don’t earn the right to these. They aren’t privileges. They belong to all as part of the universal destination of goods. To deny this is to deny the very purpose of God’s creation.
Wealthy nations have the responsibility to assist developing nations in providing a safety net and opportunity for each of their citizens. Most Americans outrageously overestimate how much foreign aid is given. The real level is woefully inadequate. Even as we struggle to fix a busted budget, the most vulnerable people on the planet cannot be sacrificed so that we might enjoy more luxury and excess. I hope the next pope will push the United States and others to increase, rather than walk back, their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.
As states in the affluent West attempt to re-imagine and revitalize their social safety nets, it is essential that we have a pope who encourages reform that guarantees universal coverage so that no one falls through the cracks. It is also essential that this pope believes in the dignity of work and defends workers, building on the social teachings that have developed since Rerum Novarum. As union membership declines, chronically high unemployment exists in many postindustrial countries, and work invades the private sphere via laptops, conference calls, and smart phones, the priority of giving people access to quality jobs, just working conditions, and adequate time for family, friends, and leisure is even more essential.
It is critical that the next pope recognizes the nature of contemporary threats to strong, united families and advocates changes that will counter these threats. One of the great changes in recent decades is the increasing number of women working outside of the home, utilizing their unique gifts and talents to contribute to the global common good. Yet many societies have failed to adjust to this reality. Economic realities, as well as antiquated rules and customs in the workplace, make it harder for working mothers and fathers to ensure quality childcare for their children. The next pope should articulate a pro-family vision that moves countries and employers out of the 20th century and into the 21st, increasingly flexibility and efficiency.
I hope that the next pope is the biggest cheerleader for the education of girls on the planet. Creating increased opportunities for young girls around the world, increasing their literacy rates, and unlocking a fraction of their incredible potential can have a monumental impact in promoting the global common good. Additionally, the education of young women is a terrifying prospect for brutal thugs who rely on repression, terror, and ignorance to perpetuate injustice. Look no further than the contemptible attack on Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist for girls’ education who was almost killed when Taliban gunmen shot her. I hope that Malala and others can look to the new pope as their champion, someone known for advocating on behalf of girls everywhere, repeatedly, and without reservation.
Pope John Paul II was known for his opposition to communist tyranny. With the end of the Cold War, has the moment passed when the Church and the Holy Father can serve as a defender of freedom and justice and a thorn in the side of authoritarian tyranny? Unfortunately this need endures.
The Church, in looking out for the spiritual needs of its flock, has learned to work with governments of many stripes, including those with indefensible flaws. This may still be necessary, but the Church has the responsibility to stand as a moral voice against corruption, repression, brutality, and unjust rule. The next pope should make it clear that certain forms of government are incompatible with human dignity and those that egregiously violate the most basic rights of their citizens or others are without legitimacy.
I sincerely hope the next pope will affirm the responsibility to protect, including openly supporting the use of force as a last resort (and assuming it would meet the rest of just war criteria) to save the lives of innocent men, women, and children from mass murder. Any morally decent person hates war. But there are things worse than war and they should no longer be tolerated by the international and global community. The new pope should visibly and vocally be on the side of the innocent.
Finally, while all states might not be primed to establish or maintain authentically free democracies at the present moment, it is my hope that the next pope will support the development of free democracy and genuine public participation in governments around the world.
Even in the US, our system has moved away from genuine participation and representation and toward plutocracy, where wealth and greed are establishing perhaps insurmountable obstacles to achieving the common good. Perhaps the next pope will call well-established democracies to renew their institutional frameworks so that they might allow for more equal participation and escape the menace of government of, by, and for the rich.
Is that too much to ask from one person? Perhaps, but the new pope will be building upon a tradition that spans two millennia, a tradition committed to a vision of justice shaped by love and universal brotherhood and sisterhood.
This article is also featured on Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good’s Common Good Forum.