DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
Published November 30, 2013
The leader of the world’s Catholics released an extraordinary mission statement,1 an “apostolic exhortation,” in November. Non-Catholics may not have noticed, or cared. We should.
An indifference to what a new Pope says, and skepticism, is forgivable and understandable. Pope Francis, an Argentinian elected last March, inherited all of the past and present controversies twisting around his Christian denomination. I personally paid little heed to his ascension; I’ve been wary of his church since a youthful visit to the Vatican left me staggered and sickened by its gold-plated opulence, by its blatant preaching of its gospel on one hand while it gilded itself with the other. The Church history that I’ve read is appalling. So is the Vatican’s rote response to modern travesties, from priestly sexual abuses2 to financial scandals:3 entrenchment until being forced to acknowledge (if not repent) the depredations carried out in its name.
But already, within a mere few months in office, Francis has been a surprise. While he has not budged on contentious doctrines, including abortion and a refusal to ordinate women, soon after his election he tempered the Vatican’s harsh line on the strident social conservatism, and relentless condemnation of homosexuality, that has helped fuel the culture wars seething in some Western nations.4 He has become known for a modest lifestyle, in contrast to his predecessors.
Now, staggeringly, Francis has used his position, indeed has wielded the power of a church with 1.2 billion members, to deliver a broadside against modern capitalism. He called the global economic system “an economy of exclusion and inequality,” with “sacralized workings.”
“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” – Pope Francis
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” he asked. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded … It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new.”
Much of Francis’s copyrighted, massive mission statement, the first of his papacy that he has authored, naturally concerns Christianity. But while apparently tackling issues of zealotry within his church, Francis also launched himself into battle with free-market zealots — on their turf, in their language.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” wrote Francis, calling out advocates of “trickle-down” theories for ideas that have “never been confirmed by the facts.”
Observers of the rich trappings of church institutions might reasonably assume that inequality and exploitation have gone unnoticed within Catholicism, despite that the most rudimentary scan of Christian teachings shows them to lie at the heart of the Christian religion. Catholicism is not alone in its disregard for such economic issues. With few exceptions, religious leaders have been strangely absent in debates on these most pressing social, political and economic issues of our time, the issues that are arguably at the root of most others.
Criticizing capitalism, inequality and exploitation can’t be easy for a Pope: in today’s polarized politics even economists who question dominant free-market doctrine are seen as attacking incontrovertible received truths.5 And there’s likely a risk that pitched secular battles would distract the devout from heavenly thoughts, or at least church doctrine.
And yet Francis barged into a zone where angels might fear to tread. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation,” he wrote.
Pope Francis spoke not only of god, as one would expect in a papal address to his flock, but of the realm6 of dollars, ethics, secular governance, security, surveillance, “unbridled consumerism” and a socioeconomic system he calls “unjust at its root.”
Change is afoot in Catholicism. It deserves attention; the church has proved repeatedly in its 2,000-plus years that it has the power to change the world. This time, will it be for the better?
Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones
1. Pope Francis’s full mission statement can be read on the Vatican web site, vatican.va
2. Irish Independent story, Former Pope Benedict denies covering up child sex abuse by priests: http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/former-pope-benedict-denies-covering-up-child-sex-abuse-by-priests-29606321.html
3. Der Spiegel story, Church Financing Scandal: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/german-politicians-demand-reform-of-church-financing-a-927791.html
4. Washington Post story, If Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin don’t like the pope, they won’t care much for Jesus: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/11/28/if-rush-limbaugh-and-sarah-palin-dont-like-the-pope-they-wont-care-much-for-jesus/
5. Economist report and criticism: http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2013/11/monopolies-markets-and-pope
6. American documentary, Inequality for all: http://inequalityforall.com/
Wikipedia page on Pope Francis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_francis