Visiting the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on the first pastoral visit of his papacy last week, Pope Francis not only expressed solidarity with the thousands of refugees from Africa who arrive there each year but condemned a global culture of indifference that allows the comfortable to ignore the suffering of the poor. Five hundred migrants died trying to reach Sicily last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
They were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, the pope said, but instead they found death. Many of those who survived the perilous journey were greeted not with solidarity but with cold neglect or hostility. “In this globalised world, we have fallen into globalised indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business,” the pope said.
In his first months in office, Francis has effected a dramatic shift in emphasis in the Vatican, articulating a more intense criticism of the +ism. Catholic social teaching has for a century supported trade unions, social welfare and decent working conditions and wages but Francis has gone further, placing concern for the poor at the very centre of his papacy. In doing so, he has become a powerful critic of the global financial and economic system that has reigned almost unchallenged since the end of the Cold War. Greeting a group of ambassadors in May, the pope condemned a system that not only “reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption” but considers human beings themselves as commodities which can be used and thrown away.
“In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good,” he said.
As the first pope from the global south, Francis speaks about poverty, inequality and injustice with a freshness and directness unusual not only in the Vatican but among secular world leaders. Indeed, he has called for a change of attitude among politicians and for a thorough remaking of the economic system so that the common good should be elevated above the pursuit of profit. The global economic system has survived unreformed the financial meltdown of recent years and the wave of popular protests all over the world that have followed. In Francis, whose simplicity and piety are allied with a steely resolve and a powerful international voice, it has found a formidable new adversary.