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Can institutions care? An analysis of Pope Francis’ call to care

On his recent trip to the United States, Pope Francis made an appeal for caring before a joint meeting of Congress: “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk, is always based on care for the people.” At various points on his trip the Pope expressed concern for poverty, immigration, incarceration, and capital punishment. He was clearly suggesting that the United States could do so much more to care for its citizens and the world’s citizens. Pope Francis also invokes the language of care in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Care for Our Common Home, where he addresses the environment and environmental justice. The issues of care that the Pope is confronting have implications for individual morality but they are also systemic concerns that need social and political responses. He appears to be claiming that institutions, particularly developed nations like the U.S., should care. In many ways, this is a strange and provocative question: Can institutions care?

On the one hand, the vision of Thomas Hobbes who described the state of nature as a cruel battle pitting everyone against everyone else is fading. Emerging anthropological, historical and neurological evidence indicates that it is indeed care that has been, and will continue to be, a prerequisite for human survival and thriving. In this respect, the Pope is correct that care is necessary for humanity to endure, but what is the role of “political society” for this endurance? In the last several decades, political theorists and others have begun to take up the issue of the role of public policies and practices in care. One of the challenges is that care is experienced at the individual level between human beings. For people, care is experienced as a hug, an offering of food, medical attention to one’s body, or the attentive listening of a friend. Institutions do not hug, smile, listen, or touch. People do those things.

Pope Francis Celebrates Concluding Mass in Philly by Aleteia Image Department. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

Beginning in the 1980’s theorists began addressing a new, relational approach to morality referred to as “care ethics.” At first, in the process of defining this moral approach, much of the theorizing focused on relational dyads—the care between two people—because humans perceive of care on that basis. However, quickly concerns about the role of social institutions such families, companies, municipalities or nation states in establishing policies and practices that either foment or restrict care arose. To be sure, care is a powerful human force that is capable of overcoming social restrictions. For example, even in prison, inmates can exhibit kindness and care for one another. Yet, we know that there can be larger forces at work in the delivery of care. In Germany, federal law allows parents to take up to 156 weeks of leave to care for a newborn at full and then partial pay. In the United States, federal law limits parents to 14 weeks of unpaid leave each. In the family, the care is experienced by the child as coming from the parents and other participants but national policies are not insignificant to how that care is delivered. Care is indeed personal, and political.

So Pope Francis’ call for care and compassion would seem to be a humane request that should enjoy widespread appeal. In fact, the Pope has enjoyed tremendous popularity among progressives and environmentalists for his humility and efforts to place a caring spotlight on issues historically overlooked by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. However, there is an intriguing twist to the Pope’s efforts as we respond to the question of whether institutions care. The Pope explicitly places his call for care in a Christian tradition of care, but Christian notions of care are not exactly the same as those developed by modern care theorists. One of the essential claims of contemporary care theorists is that rich authentic care is one that is responsive to the other. As such, caregivers must listen and respond to the one needing care with what will best allow the one cared-for to thrive and flourish. Such an approach precludes ideological restrictions. As progressive as the Pope has been, he is still the leader of a dogmatic institution. Papal care does not include the possibility of someone needing an abortion, marrying someone of the same sex, or women being allowed into leadership positions of the Catholic Church. As long as such ideological restrictions exist, the Pope can be a champion for only a limited range of caring possibilities. As useful as the Pope’s call for greater care is, the limitations placed on caring falls short of the moral ideal developed by care ethicists.

So can institutions care? Well, not really. Only people can care. However institutions can provide the social structure to support caring if they do not allow ideological limitations to get in the way.

Feature image credit: Embrace Sculpture by Eric Kilby. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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