The Pope, the President, and Social Doctrine

“Universal destination” may sound like a fancy way of saying where we’re all headed, but this odd expression happens to be the name for a central principle of Catholic social teaching. It follows therefore that it is also central to Pope Francis’ much-discussed apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

The point is important particularly in light of the announcement that the Pope and President Obama will meet in late March in Rome to talk—according to the president—about their shared concern over economic inequality. It’s a matter on which they see eye to eye. Or do they?

Even friendly critics of the apostolic exhortation have seemed often to miss its central thrust, with perhaps some reason. The document is long, rambling, and studded with overly broad generalizations, and the flaws make it easy for well-disposed readers to become distracted and lose track of what its economic sections are actually saying.

Begin with the crucial fact that, like other social justice documents of the Magisterium, Evangelii Gaudium doesn’t deal in policies and programs but principles. The most important of these is the universal destination of goods, understood as an existential basis for an equitable sharing of the world’s wealth. (Worth recalling as America marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.)

Pope Francis, looking at the global scene, puts it like this: “We must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resource or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity” (Evangelii Gaudium, 190). With necessary adjustments, that applies to the national and local levels too.

The Pope isn’t saying anything new. Other popes have made the same point. But apparently it’s new to some. In conversation with several well-educated Catholic laymen a while back, I mentioned the universal destination of goods and was met with blank disbelief: Surely the Church never said anything like that. Evidently there’s work to do getting the word around.

It’s a simple enough principle. God created the world for everyone to live in and cultivate and enjoy, and that should govern the distribution of its fruits. The right to private ownership, also affirmed by the Church, remains undisturbed in this view. But it isn’t absolute, and the principle shaping its exercise is “universal destination.” Francis says: “The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good” (Evangelii Gaudium, 189).

This points to the moral imperative of some form of redistribution of wealth. Here many critics lose their cool, assuming this means heavy-handed statist intervention in the economy, ruinous taxation of individuals and private enterprises that discourages initiative, and the rest of the neo-liberal chamber of horrors. Francis’ remedy is different: it’s moral change—conversion.

Activists of the left and the right commonly proceed as if structures—government programs, free markets, or some combination of both—were sufficient to ensure justice and prosperity for all. But structures must be supported by change of heart. One without the other won’t do the job. Structural changes are needed, Francis says, but also more: “We are called to find Christ in [the poor], to lend our voice to their causes…to be their friends” (Evangelii Gaudium, 198).

Some people will reasonably ask: Is that realistic? To which the answer is: Maybe not, but the Church must keep saying it, or it never will be.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • JMC

    It doesn’t help that government programs, of necessity, become simple handouts, which do nothing for man’s dignity. The prime example is welfare. Some states used to require that welfare recipients devote a certain amount of time each day to public service. It became like having a job, with things like child care provided in a time when daycare centers were still largely unheard of. But, as those who did not want to work protested more and more loudly, those public service programs were stopped, and welfare became a “free lunch,” so to speak. In the early years of the welfare program, most wouldn’t apply for it because it was taken as meaning you couldn’t provide for yourself or your family, which was a major blow to one’s pride. Now, there are those who will go homeless before applying for welfare, even if they are qualified for it, because they don’t want to be seen as another “lazy bum looking for a handout.” This is where human dignity is harmed by these programs. Yet many tend to look at any program that requires some form of “sweat equity,” to use Habitat’s term for it, as the affront to dignity. The “tangled web” of deception to which the Bard referred is never more tangled than when that deception is aimed at ourselves.

  • Shirley Murry

    I need help in a prayer for my friend so he can come here with me but you will not help me and my gmail will not go thou he live in India and No one will help me to bring so I need your help he is a Catholic, can you help us please, he need a work visa or a green card please help us.

  • BillinJax

    Nice article Mr. Shaw. I fear the meeting of minds in March will only fan the flames of division within our country and the Church, which has been the media’s delightful playground for several years now.

  • lehighlola

    I would recommend talking to the Priest at your local church. Also, you can ask him about the RCIA program for a great basic understanding of the faith. In the meantime, Catholic radio stations (Ave Maria radio is great) have “call-in” programs where you can get questions answered.