During his recent whirlwind trip to three of the poorest countries in South America, Pope Francis was a man on fire. He played the role of thunderous Old Testament prophet, community organizer, and even a revolutionary rallying the downtrodden to stand up to injustice. In a speech in Bolivia widely viewed as one of the most important and far-reaching of his papacy, the pope brought an urgent message that should make global elites nervous.
The first pope from Latin America will visit the United States in three months and become the first pontiff to address Congress. If his South American tour is any indication, the powers that be here in the world’s financial, media, and military epicenter should buckle up.
“Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” Francis told representatives from indigenous communities, workers, and activists fighting for social reforms. The pope highlighted what he called “the three Ls” (labor, lodging, and land) as central to human dignity. He warned time was “running out” to address ecological destruction and climate change. He railed against a “new colonialism” that includes fiscal austerity measures and “certain free trade agreements.” The profit-first mentality of global capitalism, Francis argues, is morally indefensible.
“Let us say ‘no’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules rather than serves,” the pope said in what has now become a defining theme of his papacy. “That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”
A pope who is radical, not liberal
It’s tempting to squeeze this maverick pope into secular political categories. Some media coverage has reflected this instinct by describing the pope as a leftist. In many ways, this is understandable. The pope’s searing critique of the socioeconomic status quo — what he calls “an idolatrous system which excludes, debases, and kills” — is left of the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton might agonize over how far to go in challenging the titans on Wall Street, but the pope has, well let’s just say, fewer political calculations to consider.
The pope also uses language that would be familiar to Occupy Wall Street activists, who in 2011 made Zuccotti Park a magnet for those challenging the presumptions of unbridled market fundamentalism, or leaders who mobilized massive protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization in 1999.
In fact, while some in the liberal establishment turned up a collective nose at Occupy, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who leads the Vatican’s justice and peace council and wrote the first draft of the pope’s recent encyclical, said at the time that the “basic sentiment” behind Occupy Wall Street aligned with traditional principles of Catholic social teaching on the economy.
While Pope Francis’ populist rhetoric warms the hearts of many liberals — including those who wish the church would pipe down on issues of sexuality and marriage — it’s a mistake to pigeonhole him with conventional secular terms. His source of inspiration is the radical message at the heart of the Gospels. In the shadow of the Roman Empire, Jesus put the poor and those on the peripheries at the center of his ministry.
He rattled the righteous defenders of the religious law, scandalized many, and fulfilled the message of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free . . . ”
In Bolivia, Pope Francis specifically anchored his denunciation of a corporate globalization that has lifted some boats but has done little for those languishing in the villas miseries of Buenos Aires and the favelas of Rio in this context. “This system runs counter to the plan of Jesus,” the pope said bluntly. “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”
In Ecuador, the pope made it plain: “Our faith is always revolutionary.”
A pope who upholds Catholic social teaching
If you have a problem with what Pope Francis is saying, your real problem is with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, and a century of Catholic social teaching about the common good.
Some conservatives determined to paint Pope Francis as naïve and marginalize him as a Marxist have clear political motivations. “This pope grew up in a third world country that, frankly, is an example of what happens when you don’t have capitalism and democracy,” scoffed former ambassador Otto Reich, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic who has mistakenly argued his budget proposals are consonant with his faith’s teachings, also strikes a condescending tone. “The guy is from Argentina,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2013. “They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.” Leaving aside the stunning arrogance and myopia in those statements — Wall Street greed and criminal behavior get a free pass — these critiques are part of a larger effort to delegitimize the pope when it comes to economic justice.
Ryan and Co. conveniently ignore the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to “sinful inequalities” that are “in open contradiction to the Gospel.” The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican under Pope John Paul II, states that “wealth exists to be shared” and that “evil is seen in the immoderate attachment to riches and the desire to hoard.”
This doesn’t make Pope Francis or the Catholic Church anti-market or anti-capitalist. Catholic teaching is clear that the economy should exist to serve human beings, not the other way around. Ever since Pope Leo XIII issued the church’s first social encyclical in 1891, at a time when the savage inequalities of the Industrial Revolution left workers with little protection against the whims of rapacious owners, the church has advocated for living wages, the need for unions, and prudent oversight of markets to ensure human dignity is not sacrificed on what Pope Francis has called “the altar of money.”
Pope John Paul II spoke about the “priority of labor over capital.” Pope Benedict XVI challenged the “scandal of glaring inequalities.” Francis is building on themes addressed by his predecessors, while clearly putting more institutional muscle behind inequality and social exclusion.
It’s true that Pope Francis is shaped by his experiences in Argentina, and his unique vision as the first non-European pontiff in over a millennium. This is an asset. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio earned a reputation for being the “Bishop of the Slums” for the considerable time he spent in the toughest sectors of town. During the 2002 Argentine debt crisis, along with other Catholic bishops, Bergoglio spoke out against fiscal austerity measures and pointed to “social exclusion, a growing gap between rich and poor, and . . . the negative consequences of globalization and the tyranny of markets.”
A pope who brings a perspective from the peripheries and aligns with the powerless knows his harshest critics are waiting for him in the United States. Expect the backlash to Pope Francis’ urgent pleas for action on climate change and inequality to heat up in the lead up to his visit. The most influential moral leader in the world today is calling out a status quo that political and financial elites benefit from at the expense of the poor. Those who prefer religion safe and sanitized — or relegated to issues of sexual morality — are on the defensive for good reason.
“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” the American writer James Baldwin once wrote. The same might apply to a pope bringing radical Christianity back to center stage.
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