For today's Common Good Forum, we feature an essay written by Dr. Meghan Clark, an associate professor of theology at St. John's University, on Pope Francis's bold claim that "inequality is the root of social ills." One of the most influential young American theologians, Clark argues that Francis's focus on inequality, while new in vigor and focus, has deep Catholic roots. Looking to the current times, she asserts that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has the best American approach to this crucial issue. This piece originally appeared in our Millennial Journal.

“Inequality is the root of social ills” (EG 202) is becoming perhaps the most quoted and (for some) infamous line in Pope Francis’ Evangelii GaudiumJust last week, there was an excellent piece here at Millennial detailing the theological anthropology behind Catholic Social Teaching’s apprehension of extreme inequality. On the one hand, as the article notes, Pope Francis is not saying anything radically different from his predecessors; if you think you cannot find similarly progressive statements by St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, you simply aren’t reading very closely. However, I do not think Pope Francis is simply repeating what his predecessors have already said – he is integrating Catholic social teaching on the preferential option for the poor with a more robust understanding of social sin in ways necessary for, as Pope Leo XIII explained in Rerum Novarum, “engaging the world as it really is” and “looking elsewhere for the solution.”

Catholic social teaching on economic justice has often avoided discussing inequality directly; it remains absent from Economic Justice for All, for example. Catholic moral theologians have also avoided the topic, with very few academic articles written on the subject in the last fifty years. Modern Catholic social teaching, until very recently, assumed that “a rising tide raises all boats,” focusing instead on poverty and raising up those at the bottom whose basic needs are not met (except when it came to global development). Populorum Progressio, for example, spends considerable time on the question of global inequality, seen in profound underdevelopment and corresponding super-development. Yet overall, there has been hesitancy in speaking about inequality of income or wealth itself.

And yet, as scores of scholars have now effectively demonstrated, we do not live in a world where we can focus on poverty without specific and concerted attention to inequality. The Spirit Level by Wilkenson and Pickett, as well as recent works by Joseph Stiglitz and others provide clear evidence of the structural problem within the current domestic and global status quo of capitalism. Like his predecessors, Pope Francis shows a commitment to engage the world as it is. This is what we find in his emphatic “No” to economic and social exclusion, inequality, idolatry of money, etc. Far from setting up a supposed straw man of “free market capitalism,” as some have accused, Pope Francis rightly identifies specific ideological theories like “trickle-down economics” which perpetuate these structures of inequality. (The frequent calls for lower taxes and sweeter regulatory deals for those in the 1%, including the fights about the “Bush tax cuts” demonstrate that the Pope is engaging reality rather than imagining ideological strawmen.)

We have a structural problem, and this is where Catholic social teaching is bolstered and strengthened by the work of liberation theology. Social sin is the theological concept which allows us to more clearly examine human-made structures which violate human dignity or the common good, taking into account that the structures themselves self-perpetuate and cause a harm that exceeds that of individual circumstances, such as racism, colonialism/neo-colonialism, and sexism. But what the work of Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, OP and human rights scholar Dr. Paul Farmer also emphasize is that these always reveal deeper pathologies of power. Catholic social teaching can learn from Farmer’s appropriation and adaptation of social sin into what he calls structural violence. In Pathologies of Power, he explains: “Structural violence is a broad rubric that includes a host of offensives against human dignity: extreme and relative poverty, social inequities ranging from racism to gender inequality, and the more spectacular forms of violence that are uncontestedly human rights abuses.” And here we start to see the integration found in Pope Francis’ Evangelli Gaudium. As we take a step back, a deeper structural problem comes into view. Our economic and political structures perpetuate rather than mitigate inequality, and this is no accident.

Where Pope Francis calls upon all to “say no to an economy of exclusion,” Senator Elizabeth Warren is making that principle concrete. She is demanding we say no to particular social, political, and economic policies of exclusion. An accomplished scholar who understands financial regulation and the intricacies of the system like few others, she is exposing elements of our social, political, and economic system that perpetuate inequality. Banking regulation, student loan interest rates, and the minimum wage are merely three of the topics she is currently tackling. Student loan interest rates are not a naturally occurring phenomena – it is a system created by and for persons. Who are the persons it is meant to serve? At the heart of her mission is exposing the way in which the very structure of our economic system is built upon these deeper pathologies of power which concentrate wealth and influence in the hands of the few, pushing the many even further to the margins. Methodologically, she is asking the fundamental questions of Economic Justice for All: what does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it? Her focus is on those who are structurally disadvantaged by the status quo. Students facing crippling debt, the unemployed, low wage workers, families who were manipulated and deceived in the sub-prime mortgage system- the list goes on. Economic policy is chosen, it does not simply happen.

Another of Paul Farmer’s important insights is that as our science and technology develop, our social sin deepens. He frequently uses the example of cholera –which because of science and technology is now exclusively a disease of poverty (for those whose poverty prevents their access to basic sanitation and clean water). As science and technology develop, we are responsible for how we choose to use them (or not to use them) for the common good. We are responsible in a new way for our failure to address injustices that perhaps previously could not have been tackled.

Despite their critics, both Pope Francis and Elizabeth Warren are focusing on inequality, because as it exists now, it is a structural injustice harming persons and communities. Dismantling social sin requires two steps – both of which are important. First, we need to tackle the specific structural policies and laws of injustice. Here Elizabeth Warren proposes concrete political and economic changes to the American structure to use our resources more fully for the benefit of all. Second, and something that is much more difficult, we need a conversion of hearts to build solidarity. Pope Francis urges us to participate in building solidarity, thereby reducing divisive inequalities by reminding us that we are all equally created in the image and likeness of God. It is a message we must fully embrace.