In the early 2000s, I spent two years working for the Peace Corps, teaching subsistence farmers modern beekeeping practices to produce honey for consumption and sale. Despite the time and distance, I have continued to maintain close relationships with many of the desperately poor people with whom I worked. Because of my experience abroad—living first for years first in Paraguay and then Senegal, West Africa—I have long maintained a nagging sense that modern Western culture has a general apathy toward those in material poverty.
In short, it is my experience that Americans seem to care more about the daily vacillations of stock market than about the plight of those overseas who have unjustly been excluded from world markets.
This Pope gets it: The modern bourgeoisie need a swift kick in the butt. We need to break out of our comfortable cocoon of apathy—not only because loving your neighbor is the way to salvation—but also because apathy oftentimes breeds an unconscious complicity in the exploitation of the poor.
And while Pope Francis clearly has a heart for the poor—in much the same way I do—I am also very troubled by the overall economic incoherence of his message. For example, there is a passage in the encyclical, which explores the type of rural poverty that I experienced in Paraguay:
Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses.
This passage is simply untrue. In Paraguay, where industrial agriculture has expanded tremendously over the last two decades, poor subsistence farmers have greatly benefitted from the influx of Brazilian soy farmers who practice large-scale industrial agriculture (all of whom are planting GMO crops, by the way). In my small village, almost everyone leased their few hectares of land to the soy farmers who in turn paid them enough to not only buy the food they needed for the year, but also oftentimes invest in education for their children or in small enterprises like carpentry shops or small animal husbandry operations.
In short, industrial agriculture has freed many subsistence farmers from the daily struggle for survival. They are no longer chained to the land. Instead many of these farmers are able to use their God-given talents and skills to pursue the types of livings we take for granted in the US.
I suspect that Pope Francis has a very romanticized—almost Rousseauian—view of subsistence farming. As my friends in Paraguay have shown me, no one wants to be a slave to the land. They want to be free to choose their God-given vocation. Industrial agriculture is part of that liberation and I wish that Pope Francis had recognized this tremendous benefit of the free market.