“The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”
Pope Francis in La Repubblica, 1 Oct 2013
One of Francis’s most controversial statements in the first year of his pontificate was recounted in his very first interview with the elderly atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian paper La Repubblica in October 2013. According to Scalfari, when asked what he thought were the greatest of the evils afflicting the world these days, he named two: youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. This curious and unexpected response has been ridiculed and dismissed by papal critics since the interview was released. In a world filled with abominable crimes such as war, sex trafficking, child abuse, terrorism, oppressive regimes, and mass murder, how can youth unemployment and lonely elderly people even be mentioned in a conversation about the great evils we face today?
Setting aside the fact that Scalfari doesn’t take notes or record his interviews, and that these words are merely a reconstruction based upon Scalfari’s memory of the conversation, Francis’s seemingly simple and oblivious response is actually quite sublime in the way it captures two important facets of the interconnectedness of creation and the impact of human action or inaction on society.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis refers to the relationship between all of us and creation: “Everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” (LS 70). How we treat others and all of creation reverberates and affects the world around us. One person in the world acting with justice or love or mercy touches more than those he or she directly assists. It is impossible to quantify the benefits of a true sacrifice made out of love, or a true act of forgiveness and mercy. The saints remind us that even small acts of love or simple prayers are great gifts to creation. It’s the Faith that moves mountains.
Likewise, one cannot view sin as simply isolated, unprompted actions against a person or a group. As we are becoming increasingly aware, the sexual abuse scandal evidences a culture of corruption and duplicity – a culture of sin. Without downplaying the gravity of a single case or incident of abuse, the abuse has led others to create a cloud of complicity, silence, and cover-ups that has destroyed the moral credibility of the Church in many parts of the world.
Mention one moral evil and you can easily list a dozen or more that either lead to or result from it.
With all that in mind, Why does Pope Francis single out youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old as particularly grave?
First, it is becoming increasingly evident that global levels of youth unemployment are reaching disastrous levels. Many countries have youth unemployment levels of more than double the rate of older workers, and in some countries such as South Africa, Greece, Italy and Spain, the rate ranges from 35% to 55%. In many countries in the Arab World, the rate is 30% or higher as well.
Africa and Latin America also report a crisis in youth unemployment.
There’s no denying that the issue is widespread. But is this really a serious issue? First, let’s ask ourselves what it means for a generation of people to experience a widespread lack of economic opportunities at a stage in life when people have historically joined the workforce. What results from youth unemployment? People without steady work and a living wage are more likely to put off marriage or forgo marriage altogether, meaning that they will enter into less stable relationships, engage in more casual sex, and have more abortions and children out of wedlock. Statistically speaking, those who have children will be less able to provide them with a stable upbringing or as many educational opportunities. Lack of work leads to aimlessness, lack of self-respect and personal responsibility. These often lead to lives of addiction, crime, and violence. Unemployment leads to depression and despair.
Failure to address this issue does not simply harm the people who lack work, it affects society as a whole and future generations. We have seen in many countries that lack of opportunity leads to civil unrest, acts of terror, and even war.
Of course, even without these tangible outcomes, as Francis says, unemployment leads to a lack of hope for the person who has experienced it for a lengthy period.
This is related to the second issue, the loneliness of the old, which is even more dire if we believe in the Resurrection. In recent generations, many families have failed to provide care for their elderly relatives, even their own parents. Those among the elderly without family, money, or other resources are often left to fend for themselves or to seek assistance from the state. And certainly, material assistance cannot replace the need for human companionship and love.
Without human companionship and care, the elderly will experience loneliness. Loneliness becomes sadness, sadness becomes depression, depression becomes despair. To experience the time of life closest to death in a state of isolation and despair, rather than repentance, mercy, and love is a great tragedy from the Christian perspective. It is an obligation to help prepare our brothers and sisters for eternal life, not to ignore them. Yet so many are left to die alone. This is another great evil that needs to be remedied, and Francis was correct to draw our attention to it.
Often Pope Francis provides an answer that appears puzzling on the surface. That was certainly the case in this oft-ridiculed quote. Yet once the layers are pulled back, it becomes clear that his observations are often more sublime than is readily apparent.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.