The most provocative argument in Pope Francis' latest encyclical Laudato Si has to be that wealthy countries and wealthy people owe a debt to poorer countries and poorer people. The pope talks about a 'grave social debt' people with access to water owe to people who lack access to water. He speaks about an 'ecological debt' that the northern hemisphere (North American and Europe) owe to the Southern hemisphere (South America, Africa, and southern Asia). He even expounds on the problem foreign debt posed to developing countries, which has ways of limiting the sorts of constructive domestic policies governments are able to pursue. Statements like these, when taken together, naturally lead to the conclusion that the pope believes the wealthy owe a debt to the poor for their wealth.
Now whether you are inclined to agree with what the pope has to say in his encyclical can probably be determined in advanced by how you react to this basic proposition. So it can function as a sort of litmus test.
Before you applaud the pope for taking this brave moral stance or condemn him for his naivete, however, it will serve to consider carefully what you are affirming or denying. If, on the one hand, you are willing to say the wealthy do owe a debt to the poor for their wealth, ask yourself the question whether you are willing to sign over a significant portion of your income/wealth to persons you don't know half-way around the world. (What about taking care of yourself?) If, on the other hand, you are not willing to do so, ask yourself the question whether anything at all obligates you to alleviate the suffering of persons you don't know half-way around the world. (What about a common humanity?) It is important that the problem be stated in a personal form, as it is quite easy to say that governments should be concerned about these things, but individual citizens (like ourselves) cannot be expected to worry themselves with 'big picture' matters. But the truth of the matter is that government policies are generally informed by the aspirations of the citizenry. So much so, in fact, that even the kings of old feared a restless crowd.
Good reasons can be found for applaud or condemning the proposition. Persons who say that the wealthy do owe the poor for their wealth might affirm that we are all in this together, that no one gets out alive. It stands to reason, as a consequence, that we ought to do our absolute best to take care of each other while we are here. Our common limitations determine in advance that no man is an island. No one lives in splendid isolation. The sufferings of some may not immediately affect others. But what comes around goes around in the end, making it a much better thing to preempt the inevitable outcome. On the other hand, persons who say that the wealthy do not owe the poor for their wealth will probably affirm that everyone should ultimately be responsible for themselves, to take their own initiative, and deserve to reap the rewards of their labour. This is true, so far as it goes. Self-interest, which should not automatically be construed as selfishness, also arises out the fact of bodily limitation. There is only so much time in a day for a person to procure the 'means of existence': food, clothing, shelter, and the like. And when all is said and done, after I have exhausted myself making provision for my own needs, there may not be a whole lot left over for others. Something similar goes through the heads of government officials when they crunch the numbers of what additional good-will expenditures they can fit into yearly budgets.
The reason I state the problem at the heart of Pope Francis' encyclical in this form is to cut through simplistic oppositions: wealthy vs. poor, capitalistic vs. socialist, survival of the fittest vs. social welfare for everyone, etc. The conversation that has grown up around the encyclical has flirted stating its fundamental problem in terms of a basic conflict. The pope's argument, however, is developed much more systematically than a quick summary of his policy positions can adequately represent. The theme of the encyclical, expressed in the subtitle 'On Care for Our Common Home,' is how we must collectively contend with the fact of bodily limitation.
Let's first be clear with what I mean by bodily limitation. The pope does not advance spurious Malthusian arguments by measuring the growth of human communities against the availability of natural resources. Malthusian arguments assume that population growth will soon outstrip the amount of natural resources available, leading to the inevitable conclusion that a lot of people are going to go hungry.
The pope's arguments are very different. Rather than natural limitations, which he readily acknowledges, his arguments almost exclusively concern the way in which human beings artificially limit each other's access to natural resources. Through the many different ways that we relate to each other and to the natural world, he thinks that we either include or exclude each other from access to natural resources. What happens, for example, when factories pour toxic sludge into a river that also provides villages downstream with water. Certainly the factory owners have a right to their profits. They invested in the factory. They put their time and effort into the project. But do they have an absolute right to profit at the expense of local residents' access to clean water? The pope says unequivocally no. In this sense, the pope thinks that those who profit from the factory's output owe the local residents a debt, since the profit is earned at their expense.
The only way that the pope's argument can make sense is if the natural world is something that all human beings hold in common by natural right and the institution of private property means something less than absolute possession. Indeed, it is the standard Catholic position that the Creator God is the absolute owner of his creation. It is his creation. All forms of human possession can only be derivative. On such terms, private property cannot be absolutely private in the sense that persons can use it however they want. It can only be something held in trust by its human owner. Belief in the Creator God, in this respective, functions to level the playing field between property owners and non-owners. It reinforces respect for others (i.e. 'Love your neighbour as yourself'). It tells property owners they hold their property in trust, ultimately in the service of a common good. It tells non-property owners that property is held in trust, again, ultimately in service of a common good. And that is? Human flourishing.