Photo credit: Steve Houghton-Burnett / Unsplash

IN 2021, Pope Francis addressed a Meeting of Popular Movements – activists from some of the most marginalised communities around the world, united by their struggle for justice and dignity.

Beginning, “Dear Social Poets”, Pope Francis said: “This is what I like to call you: social poets. You are social poets, because you have the ability and the courage to create hope where there appears to be only waste and exclusion.”

In the section of his address headed ‘Time for action’, Pope Francis commended two concrete policy suggestions which he felt would be a first step in the direction of justice, stressing that these ideas were firmly rooted in principles such as the preferential option for the poor, and the universal destination of goods, to be found in Catholic Social Teaching and the Gospels.

The first policy was: “A basic income (the UBI) or salary so that everyone in the world may have access to the most basic necessities of life. It is right to fight for a humane distribution of these resources, and it is up to governments to establish tax and redistribution schemes so that the wealth of one part of society is shared fairly…”

Next, said Pope Francis: “the reduction of the working day is another possibility, and one that needs seriously to be explored. In the 19th century, workers laboured twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day. When they achieved the eight-hour day, nothing collapsed, contrary to what some sectors had predicted…”

Both of these policies, a universal basic income and shorter working hours, have been trialled to varying degrees around the world, with positive results – but the political courage required to make them a reality on a large scale has been lacking. And if even these policies are still seen as too radical, then the approach outlined by Pope Francis in his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti,  will seem outrageously revolutionary.

In the section, ‘Re-envisaging the social role of property’, and referencing the long tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, the Pope says: “For my part, I would observe that “the Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property”. (95) The principle of the common use of created goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order” (96); it is a natural and inherent right that takes priority over others (97)…The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods. This has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society.”

Imagine viewing UK politics through this lens? Policies that now seem radical, like a wealth tax, would seem to be the minimum required to uphold the right of everyone to a dignified life.

It has been said that politics is the art of the possible. But who decides what is possible? The party most likely to form the next UK government is already closing down its options through self-imposed, ‘iron-clad fiscal rules’, or what William Blake might have called ‘mind-forged manacles’.

This stultifying brand of ‘grown up’ politics, and the false and damaging assumptions that underpin it, are now de rigeur in mainstream, respectable political discourse. Which is all very well for those who find the status quo quite comfortable. But what about those who are struggling? And what about society as a whole?

If we are to tackle any of the economic, social and ecological crises we face, we desperately need politics founded on first principles of equality and sustainability. And when one starts from a genuine belief that all human beings are equally precious, and have an equal right to a decent life and a fair share, then brave and radical policies flow naturally from that belief.

If we continue to allow the privileged and the comfortable to dictate what is possible, we will be trapped in a downward spiral of inequality and environmental destruction, in which hate and division will find fertile ground. Now is the time for social poets.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden