The Pope, Basic Income and Catholic Social Teaching
In his recently published new book Let Us Dream, Pope Francis said “I believe it’s time to explore concepts like the universal basic income” signalling a call for a discussion of the idea from perhaps the most high profile proponent of basic income in the world. So just how does Basic Income link to Catholicism and Christianity more generally?
Ahead of our event with Catholic Voices ‘The Pope and Basic Income: A Conversation’, Fr David Stewart SJ shares his reflections on Basic Income and Catholic Social Teaching.
About the Author: David recently returned to Scotland after many years away, living & working in London and overseas. A Jesuit of the British Province, he’s recently served as a priest based in an inner-city parish in Haringey, London. He previously worked in spirituality and secondary education, and was one of the team that set up a successful young-adult ministry in central London. His interests include the interface of faith, politics, social justice and culture. From 2014–2020 he was the London correspondent of America Magazine, the U.S. Jesuit journal, in which he wrote a recent piece on Universal Basic Income.
“ I’ve come to the basic income conversation, with, at the back of my mind, the long and fascinating tradition of thought and doctrine in the Roman Catholic (RC) church, generally known as Catholic Social Teaching. Usually abbreviated to CST, it takes many forms. I’m a Jesuit, an interested non-expert, also a recently returned Scot, excited to discover that people appear to discuss basic income (or ‘UBI’) here more often than in England, where I’ve lived and worked for many years. I see also how Pope Francis has signalled support for the concept of UBI, at least in broad terms, in a series of comments he made last year.
What do we mean by CST? It’s now commonplace to refer to it as “the Catholic Church’s best-kept secret”; the phrase originated, I think, with the writer Donal Dorr, a scholar, theologian and missionary priest. If he didn’t coin the phrase, he would surely agree with what it suggests; that many people, both within and outwith the RC church, just don’t know that we say and think these things. If they do know, maybe they misunderstand.
I recall once, in the U.S., attending a seminar led by Rev. Jim Wallis, the Evangelical Protestant pastor and preacher, a leader in the noted “Sojourners” community in Washington, DC. Jim was citing CST at one point, then stopped abruptly mid-sentence. “Any Catholics in the audience?” he enquired. A few nervous hands went up. “Why do you never speak about this stuff?”, he smiled.
When we use that word “teaching”, we are not talking about a rule-book. In these post-modern times, people are suspicious of claims to teaching authority, we’re told! This is “social thought”, deep thinking and research, designed to “inform consciences, not to replace them” as Pope Francis put it. It’s an organic tradition, open to development and further thought. We’re meant to use the brains we’re given, we’re meant to reflect, we’re meant to “read the signs of the times” in the light of the Gospel.
The tradition of thought, of reflection on social problems, the “social question”, begins in 1891, under Pope Leo XIII, as the Industrial Revolution and political upheaval swept across Europe. Leo’s document, “Rerum Novarum” (“Of New Things”) presents six major themes, which I won’t explore now. But let’s just note its telling subtitle: “An encyclical on Capital and Labour”. In its very first paragraph, this landmark document talks of “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals and the utter poverty of the masses”. This was, let’s note, 1891.
Since then, over 20 papal documents have continued this tradition of reflection and thought on social questions. It’s essential here to understand that this is the Church at the service of the world, as Pope Francis proposes. He wants the world to see that this is not the church trying to dominate the world, still less to rediscover a supposed lost “Christendom”, as some would like. Like Leo in 1891, he does not lay down rules but argues that the Church’s duty is to teach and witness to certain basic truths about the human person, that society must respect. Is there, then, a link between what Francis has been saying about basic income and the CST tradition?
The Pope’s remarkable document of 5 years ago, Laudato Si (LS), while not explicitly suggesting basic income is, I’d propose, oriented in the same direction. He makes it clear that he presents LS as a CST document, standing in the taught tradition that began in 1891. And, since that tradition has been so concerned with social justice, that economic affairs be designed for the greater Common Good, I suggest that a key insight of Francis in this great document could help our reflection on basic income. This is his concept of Integral Ecology, that our care (or lack of it) for our Common Home mirrors how we treat each other, and vice-versa. He speaks of our “human ecology”; in basic terms, about our care for each other. More recently, Francis has developed this line of thought to embrace his concept of Fraternity, particularly in the more recent document Fratelli Tutti.
To conclude, I wonder if reading Francis here would suggest that our Christian reflection on basic income should not be separated from our care for the planet and our concern to foster fraternity. There are, of course, serious questions about the nature of work, which Papal teaching has explored, highlighting how employment confers deserved human dignity. So let’s ask together — as we long for a better future, and we inform ourselves about our traditions of CST, our integral ecology and our concern for the Common Good, will we find a case for basic income emerging from this careful, sacred process of thought and reflection?