Pope Francis is agitating among the poor in the south. No, not the United States’ South. Further south.
The pope’s current tour of South America is sending him back into the arms of the people he came from — the poor, the disadvantaged, the masses that he hopes are creating a grassroots movement for change. In coming to the aid of those on the wrong end of income inequality, Francis called the pursuit of wealth “the dung of the devil.” During a speech in Bolivia, he took capitalists severely to task for exploiting poor countries for their raw materials and cheap labor.
By giving an apology, Francis went straight to the origin of the problem. He told his audience:
“Some may rightly say, ‘When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church. I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.
“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
Then he launched a critique of the “new colonialism”:
“The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”
The solution might be elusive, but there’s no doubt about in whose hands it lies. Francis called for a global social movement to break the hold of the colonialism that continues to take advantage of the poor around the world for the benefit of developed countries — chief among them being the United States. He gave people who may consider themselves powerless some validation by acknowledging that they have learned useful lessons. As an example, he praised local initiatives, like cooperatives, that have been created to help the poor.
With the following words, Francis supported the activism of the people and reinforced their rights:
“I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three Ls — labor, lodging, land.”
Many proponents of capitalism are squirming under the glare of this uncomfortable spotlight, no one more than Americans of the United States variety. Francis will visit our country — the beating heart of capitalism — in September. The looming tour and the Catholic leader’s most recent words raise questions about what kind of papal scolding this country might be in for.
Francis could already have been talking to the Republican Party on Saturday, during a speech in Paraguay. He pointedly linked money and idolatry by asking political and business leaders “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.” And again, when he said that “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy” lacks a human purpose and a human face.
Squirming defenders of capitalism are represented by the likes of the Rev. Robert A. Sirico. Sirocco is the president of an organization that promotes free-market economics, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He responded to the pope’s words with:
“I wish Francis would focus on positives, on how a free-market economy guided by an ethical framework, and the rule of law, can be a part of the solution for the poor — rather than just jumping from the reality of people’s misery to the analysis that a market economy is the problem.”
However, the pope is all too aware of economic reality to emphasize those elusive ‘positives’ — namely that ‘an ethical framework’ and ‘the rule of law’ are often either absent or skillfully evaded in the capitalist system. By contrast, he told Bolivians:
“[The system] has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.
“This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, labourers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”
The most strident of the pope’s critics think it’s him, rather than their favored economic system, that is ‘intolerable’. They are quick to label Francis a Marxist — a label with which he might be comfortable.
It’s undeniable that Francis is calling for the redistribution of wealth, but so is much of the population of the world. More realistic appraisals include that of Robert A. Johnson, director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Johnson said:
“I think the pope is singing to the music that’s already in the air. And that’s a good thing. That’s what artists do, and I think the pope is sensitive to the lack of legitimacy of the system.”
The illegitimacy has become increasingly, painfully obvious. In the United States, that recognition is embodied in the swelling support for grassroots heroes like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In Greece, it’s represented by the resounding ‘no’ vote against austerity, an attitude embraced by the Greek people, if not fully by its leaders.
Unrest is growing because, even where the economy seems to be rebounding, as in the United States, the benefits still flow mainly to the wealthy. The GOP continues to fight against a living wage for workers and against taxation of the wealthy that could distribute some of those benefits downward to the people whose labor makes excessive profits possible for the ‘leisure’ class.
The ‘future of humanity’ is in workers’ hands, much as it was during the Great Depression when union workers risked their lives to win rights for average Americans. The support of the pope may not be crucial to the movement that is currently underway, however it can only add to the urgency of the gathering momentum.