Once again Pope Francis is causing a stir. Speaking at a United Nations conference on nutrition on Thursday, he called for a more just distribution of the world’s bounty. He said that access to food is a basic human right and should not be subjected to market speculation and the search for profits:

‘We ask for dignity, not for charity… It is also painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by “market priorities,” the “primacy of profit,” which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature.’

If these remarks turn out to be influential the big guns will be turned against him. Nevertheless he is addressing an issue which is rapidly deteriorating on a world scale as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. What is happening is not going to be resolved by slight tweaking, a bit more tax here and a bit less there. Since the end of the Cold War the west has behaved as if it won and its way of life should now be unopposed. The result is these ever-increasing extremes of wealth and poverty. It cannot last.

My aim in this post is to offer a Christian ethical account of why the Pope is right. My reason is that the people who have created the present situation seem to be winning the intellectual argument. Those who care about poverty need to develop a clear, convincing intellectual case for change.

For the sake of brevity I am keeping the points as simple as possible. The present regime defends itself something like this.

  1. Capital creates wealth. While Marx argued that wealth is created by the working class, the present neo-conservative consensus is that wealth is created by the owners of capital.
  2. The amount of wealth to be created needs to grow continually. When we do not have economic growth, unemployment and recession follow.
  3. Wealth is measured by the amount of money changing hands.
  4. People with only a little to buy or sell are comparatively unimportant to the economy. People who receive money but do not engage in paid employment are a hindrance to the economy.
  5. Inequalities, like starvation in the midst of plenty, are caused by failures of economic management.
  6. The way the economy works is very complicated. Managing it requires great technical expertise. The well-being of the world’s economic order is dependent on a small number of economic experts. Without them there would be chaos.
  7. We must therefore pay them as much as they ask.
  8. Justice – that is, what morally ought to happen – is that everybody obeys the rules, rules designed to maximise the total amount of wealth.

Here is my alternative.

  1. Wealth is created by God. Or, if you don’t believe in God, call it nature. Nature, or God, provides the things we need, including our brains and muscles so that we can look after each other.
  2. The amount of wealth created is enough to meet everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed. The idea of increasing wealth to provide for greed as well as need is what has got us into this mess.
  3. Wealth should be measured not by money but by seeing whether people’s needs are met and whether they live fulfilling lives.
  4. Some people are fit and healthy and can help others. Some people are too young or too old or too ill or too handicapped and need a lot of help from others. They are not a hindrance to legitimate objectives, as there are enough able-bodied people to care for them.They should not be discriminated against in any way. They are loved by God just as much.
  5. Inequalities are caused by some people using their power to take more than their share, thus depriving others.
  6. The way the economy works is not a matter of technical expertise. Instead, as the European tradition knew until the eighteenth century, it is a matter of morality. It is a matter of people caring for each other, noticing what other people need, and helping. This caring role applies to everybody who is not severely disabled or ill, but it applies more to people with more power, like governments.
  7. Some people need more than others, but nobody earns or deserves twice as much as a full-time hospital nurse.

Justice would be when everybody’s needs are met. To achieve it, we will need to abandon the fantasy of never-ending economic growth.