Pope Francis in his whirlwind tour subtly criticized America in deeper ways than any present US political figure. Instinctively, the people responded, perhaps to his office, to his charisma, but I’d like to think—without comprehending that subtlety—to his vision of commonwealth. The word does not appear in his homilies, yet it describes an organicism in his thought which moves the social order into a moral order through successive steps in the affirmation of humanity’s cosmic and spiritual identity. One NYT columnist called him a 19th century pope whose ideas have not come up to modern times. That is superficial, based on Francis’s not going down the line in the culture wars (presumably, the emancipation of women, even though he was quite clear on that score).
Francis’s genius lies in crafting a modern and thoroughly progressive sensibility onto an essentially medieval social-structural-ideational framework. He is not anti-capitalist so much as he is pre-capitalist, which actually comes to the same thing because not embracing, indeed rejecting, that which defines modern capitalism. I like what I heard, for this may be the only way to crack open the impenetrable political-economic-ideological wall in which capitalism surrounds itself. When, for example, he spoke of globalization, he infused it with such meaning, an equality of rights affecting every individual, as to question hegemony, imperialism, world poverty, and war as singly and together (for they are integrated phenomena) destructive of the integrity of the individual, his/her moral and spiritual existence, and Nature per se. Man inhabits Nature, part of the organicism I noted.
Francis begins with the sacredness of the individual (I might add, in the sight of God, but as an integral political theory, spiritual need not be code for belief in God, but rather, as in Kant’s categorical imperative, a higher moral standard as such, one which might be secular without disturbing the fundamental obligation of observance), and from there, places the individual into the family, making the latter endowed with the same moral attributes. The family then becomes a microcosm of the social order. That is extremely important. One treats others as one treats members of one’s own family. The social order becomes the Family of Man. Already you have departed miles away from capitalism, which favors inequality, domination, alienation inscribed in the very structure of the political economy and value system.
God may be an inspiring thought, a pathway leading to Augustine’s City of God, or to myriad Christian utopianists, especially 17th century mystical poets, but the predication of human solidarity and fulfillment would as easily describe Eugene Debs and countless socialists in America. What I find distinctive and emotionally heartening in Francis is the inclusiveness of his vision; for Man, Family, Nature are inseparable. They define a social order which through faithfulness to the golden rule (which was a loud applause line for him) transmutes itself into a moral order as well. The golden rule may be a cliché, but when Francis goes further, seeing the desecration of Nature (for him, Mother Nature) as intimately related to the widespread existence of poverty, both being injustices and violations of the moral order, one begins to appreciate the firmness of his critique of capitalism, the materialization of human identity and striving which, like Marx’s warning, reduces the human into an object, and whether rich or poor, an object obliterating the moral essence of Man and Nature alike.
Francis provides us the scaffolding to construct a moral life, for the person, the society, and, without ascribing anthropomorphic qualities to it, nature itself. For nature, capitalized or not, defines its own self-respecting universe, not to be the object of spoliation, rape, or the promiscuous pursuit of profit. Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si, shows a reverence for nature and the need for an attitude of human succoring and compassion toward it that confirms his not simply environmental progressiveness but more important his biting, even ferocious critique of the waste and plunder attending capitalism, waste and plunder readily leading to war and aggression. If there is a single term he said repeatedly, it is peace, peace as infusing the whole chain of existence, harmonizing aspirations for a better life, as a global concern and to be rendered practicable, with the construction of a livable social order, which by virtue of fulfilling that endeavor, becomes the sought-for moral order, social and moral fused as coterminous and indivisible.
With this in mind, we understand more fully Francis’s opposition to climate change: climate change = desecration of nature = desecration of humankind and its moral potentialities. How man treats the environment is crucial, beyond an awakened moral sense, to one’s reverence for life—yes, the abortion issue, for Francis and the Church, but also, for Francis, and here I would agree, life as the whole organic universe, including its institutions, a reverence then for all that dwells within it, a further expansion of the chain of existence. This is not rocket science, but simply an encompassing doctrine of love, kindness, humility. Francis does not hide his contempt for the powerful, who disrupt the moral order by their quest for and conservation of privilege, wealth, and power. Intuitively, this is what the crowd sensed in his visit, a brief magical interlude in the return to business as usual (taken literally).
In the wake of his impendent departure, the New York Times had an editorial, “The Soaring Price of Political Access,” (Sept. 27), which was probably not influenced by his presence yet has, by emphasizing the corrupting uses of money, a flavor of the zeitgeist to which, temporarily, we owe Francis a debt of gratitude—for The Times a good critical analysis of current practice. It begins, “Politicians busy soliciting ever-larger donations from eager millionaires epitomize the truth of a 12-year-old Supreme Court ruling on contribution limits: ‘Money, like water, will always find an outlet.’” The editorial implicates both major parties, pointing out that they are “planning tenfold increases in the rates V.I.P. donors will be charged to secure the right to attend exclusive dinners,” etc., which brings them into contact with “candidates and party leaders.” With Citizens United and super PACS, “the richest donors are buying ever more influence over politicians, with favoritism and corruption an inevitable result.” Democrats are matching Republicans stride by stride, even asking “the Federal Election Commission this month to approve dubious shortcuts around the law that Republican candidates already have been taking.”
The foregoing is obvious, but by coincidence I belatedly just read Glenn Greenwald’s “With Liberty and Justice for Some,” in which he traces a two-tiered legal system, with the granting of retroactive immunity to the telecom companies, engaged in felonious conduct by implementing the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program on the American people, as a clear example of the power of money, the contemptuous treatment of the rule of law, and, in effect, the double standard under which capitalism operates—all of which I find implicit or explicit in Francis’s indictment of the current order. Organicism can have its retrograde structural-social applications, but not, I think, in his hands. For in his hands, a genuine equalitarianism emerges throughout the whole chain of existence: if I may, a globalization of virtue, in which degradation of any sort finds no lodgment.
My New York Times Comment on the editorial, same date, follows:
Money vitiates the democratic process. Its growing emphasis has already proven the corrupted nature of the Court and Congress because neither is dedicated to the Founders’ principles of free elections based on reason and justice. Yes, we are a plutocracy; justice is for sale to the highest bidder. Lobbyists have replaced the people’s representatives as the determiners of policy and values.
The entire process in which money defines public outcomes directly negates the rule of law. Money buys impunity. Only this week GM is fined for a defective ignition switch responsible for killing large numbers of people, but no criminal prosecution and the promise of a clean bill of health. Every major player, from political parties to mega-corporations, appears to be pushing to the limits its legitimated impunity; laws and safeguards are falling right and left. What remains?
Selfishness, greed, opportunism, lies, deceptions, the assault on truth–paradoxical in that becoming glaringly obvious in the midst of Pope Francis’s visit to America. Public morality has been twisted so out of shape that we do not even recognize how money seriously compromises democracy. To him who has shall have the fruits of others. Both major parties are complicit in robbing the people of a decent life. Both major parties are in a bidding war to see which one can be the more effective servant of power. America’s moral core has been so eroded that one wonders if it can ever be restored.