Pope Francis I on Capitalism


Pope Francis I is no ideological jester. He should not fool any one at this point of time, nor is he attempting to. He is a formidable figure and has a sense of his enemies within the Church. He also knows the various precipices the world’s first global corporation has been heading towards. He cut his teeth in the authoritarian hot house of Argentina’s military dictatorship, making it clear that he could wade through the murky waters of the darkest politics. If he needed to do God’s work in a dictatorship, he would. In a sense, Pope Francis I is a true political leader – he knows his charismatics and his reactionaries, when to keep them sweet and when to chide them.

For that reason, his encyclical last month is fitting. He is all too aware that the Church needs new recruits, and in South America and Africa, where victims of the free market toil, gains are to be made. His “apostolic exhortation” in November’s Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) took aim at modern capitalism with a pointed firmness. “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.”

Much like flat-earth science, such theories had no truck with reality. The distributive model of capitalism, with an eye for efficient spread, was nonsense. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, express a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system.” Technocrats, capitalists, communists and plutocrats – the margin of human error in such individuals was always going to be greater than the margin for virtue. For that reason, one must say, “No to the new idolatry of money.”

Commentators are misreading the pontiff’s move as radical, confusing an obvious yet sharp analysis of a contemporary problem with an ideological shift. The Second Vatican Council was taken as the key point of divergence in Church politics. Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (1963) seemed to throw its lot, albeit reluctantly, behind democratic government while Pope Paul IV’s Ecclesiam Suam (1964) made it clear that, “We are driven to repudiate such ideologies that deny God and oppress the Church.” But the Church had not always regarded Marxism’s tenets as totally inimical, though it did see its substitution of God’s will with that of humankind as patently dangerous. Elements have been assimilated.

In the 19th century, a movement that embraced a social program dealing with economic and political action crossing classes, yet hostile to laissez-faire capitalism, took root in Europe. Henry de Saint-Simon saw a combination of Christian virtue and social conscience in policy as vital: the capitalist would be deprived and assets put at the disposal of broader social goals.

The British novelist Charles Kingsley, as a neat contrast to Karl Marx’s view on religion as being the opium of the masses, saw the Bible in Politics for the People (1848) as a misused document, that “mere book to keep the poor in order,” an “opium-dose for keeping breasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded”. John Malcolm Ludlow would take heart from this, being one of the essential figures behind the Christian socialist movement and the cooperative drive in Britain. Christ and socialism could walk hand in hand after all.

Marx, with his intellectual gyrations, knew that the Judaeo-Christian model behind the very religions he loathed had a role. What mattered was the difference of revelation – the proletarian paradise is revealed at the end of a blood-soaked road; the Christian point of sacrifice and mercy, at the start with a sacrificing Christ. His modern monks of V. I. Lenin’s vanguard were high priests by another name. It is no accident of history that Christian Socialist movements were born from the contradiction which seemingly put them at conflict: from the enemy comes from friend, and from friend, a priestly credo.

Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic (Nov 26) was certain something new had taken place in the Pope’s scriptorium. “The pope has taken a firm political stance against right-leaning, pro-free market economic policies, and his condemnation appears to be largely pointed at Europe and the United States.”

This month, further exciting revelations: the Pope might think Marxism wrong, but still found that good people could be Marxists. His comment in La Stampa, in full, is worth repeating: “Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” This made the hot tempered and academically challenged Rush Limbaugh insensible with rage. To Limbaugh, the Pope’s comments were “beyond Catholicism”. The apostolic exhortation was nothing but “pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope”.

Limbaugh was not the only one flailing in the dark. Fox Business host Stuart Varney brought up the fallible rear, claiming that Pope Francis was pursuing “neo-socialism”. That same illustrious network also suggested, through the not so sagacious Andrew Napolitano, that the document “reveals a disturbing ignorance” (Media Matters for America, Dec 15). “Thank God, so to speak, that his teaching authority is limited to faith and morals, because in matters of economics, he is wide off the mark.”

The goal posts have not moved in the Church’s thinking. This is made patently clear in Pope Francis’ words on the subject – he was not speaking “as a technician but according to the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church”. The Pope, in the encyclical, still concerns himself with the advance of secularism, that condition which “tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal.” He sees the need to “evangelize cultures in order to inculturate the Gospel.” He warns against the breakdown of the family, and the self-indulgent view of marriage as “mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.”

Unadulterated capitalism was never a friend of the Church, even as Communism was assuming the role as arch enemy of its theology. In a true sense, Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of capitalist processes – creative destruction – also undermines social ties, driving a wedge between the pathology for accumulation and the feeling of community. The corrosion of bonds is venal to ideas of spirit, however fictive that spirit might be. The Pope remains, certainly in that sense, more traditional than radical.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was as Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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