Political Catholicism’s New Test: Universal Basic Income (UBI) | Lone Conservative

On Easter, Pope Francis wrote an address to popular movements around the world that praised their hard work and activism amid the pandemic. Pope Francis stressed the need for universal, basic access to the “Three Ts” – tierra, techo, y trabajo (land, roof and work). Controversially, he said that it is “time to think about a universal salary” that dignifies the “noble and irreplaceable tasks that they carry out” and makes reality “that so human and so Christian slogan: no worker without rights.” 

Pope Francis hopes that these conversations on workers’ dignity will open up a “humanistic and ecological conversion that ends with the idolatry of money and puts the dignity and life at the center.” While the Pope endorsing universal basic income (UBI) seems radical and far-fetched, leading charges of heresy and leftist sympathy from sedevacantists and other critics, these calls aren’t new to Pope Francis, nor are they particularly unorthodox in the Roman Catholic Church. 

This letter represents the development of modern Catholic Social Teaching (CST). In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), which was, more or less, an inevitable reaction to the errs of the Gilded Age, secular humanism, and the rise of socialism and Marxist thought through a papal encyclical. 

The Roman Catholic Church formally derided socialism’s calls for the abolition of private property and goods as policies that would hurt the working man before the rich man. The Church viciously denounced the greed of employers and the sole reliance on the free market and supported the right to organized labor as a subset of natural law, seeking a transformation between labor and capital. This wasn’t radical, but instead reformative, and inaugurated modern Catholic social thought and a wave of cooperative businesses, deriving from Italy and spreading throughout the West.

This was not an adoption of socialist thought by the Church, but reflects the split between traditional Church catechesis on natural law’s relation to man and the unchecked development of Gilded Age economics. Profits were first and foremost with little-to-no incorporation of Christian ethics that would defend the worker from abuses. 

It must be noted that Pope Francis’ comments do not reflect liberation theology. Liberation theology is essentially a synthesis between leftist socio-economic thought and Christian theology, deriving from prominent Roman Catholic bishops in Latin and South America in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a subset of liberal theology (reformative and modernist Christian teachings), but claims to have origins in the Ancient Church. The Vatican has always been hesitant, if not hostile, to this movement, as expressed by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI. 

Pope Francis was originally a Jesuit priest in Argentina and was appointed as the Superior of the Society of Jesus in the country in 1973. The Jesuits, a Catholic religious order in the Society of Jesus, are rooted in the counter-reformation movement of the Roman Catholic Church and a call for service, leading to the foundation of countless private hospitals, charities, local ministries, universities and other educational and charitable institutions. The history of the New World in the last few centuries, especially Latin America, would be drastically different without the Society of Jesus. Francis’s opposition to the militant effects of liberation theology across Latin America led to tensions between him and Jesuit authorities before becoming Bishop of Buenos Aires.

While some basic premises of liberation theology have been accepted by Pope Francis, he doesn’t strongly support the ideological movement. A defining part of his papacy has been the call for service to the world’s most afflicted, rooted in the Gospels (and the Acts of the Apostles) and CST as defined in Rerum Novarum. He has repeatedly stressed the need to end material poverty. 

In his 2013 encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis commanded the entire Church to act as disciples and missionaries of Christ and to focus on serving the poor, in addition to establishing just economic, social and political systems. His background as a Jesuit who grew up and ministered in poorer areas of Argentina and Chile, and an admiration for the Gospels, are keys to understanding Pope Francis’s theology. 

Pope Francis’s comments on UBI don’t fall out of line with his predecessors and don’t undermine his legitimacy. The conservative Pope Benedict XVI has stressed the need to reform economic and political structures with similar comments to Francis’s. The Pope’s comments on UBI may seem surprising to many, but they represent a new type of cooperative economics that can transcend traditional concepts as Rerum Novarum set out to do 129 years ago. This isn’t a call for every Catholic worldwide to support this economic policy, but it challenges our profit-centered economies to value the dignity of workers and reintegrate Christianity into our theories and models.


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Author: Aidan McIntosh