The first Pope in my lifetime was Pius XII, a man whose picture could be used in the dictionary to illustrate the word “austere” (also, perhaps, could be used to illustrate the adverse effects of celibacy). Nonetheless, as grim a visage as he presented, he was a big deal in the Catholic household where I was raised just because he was the Pope. History wasn't as charitable, however, downgrading his legacy for his silence on the great moral issue of his time…the Holocaust.
When Pius XII was succeeded by John XXIII the sense of uplift was palpable. Not only did John XXIII offer a philosophical break with much of the papal past, but the man exuded kindness and concern and was more often than not photographed smiling. The fact that this Vatican makeover took place almost simultaneously with the White House makeover ushered in by the Kennedys is one of those neat little historical coincidences that leads certain folks to believe there really is some kind of grand design to it all-- which works only as long as you don’t think of all the many more times where it doesn’t work.
Ironically, John XXIII, who I admired then and admire still, actually helped free me from my seemingly inextricable bond to the Catholic Church by announcing the Second Vatican Council and opening the church to a long overdue self-examination. In effect he made questioning, skepticism, and doubt un-sinful. And in my case anyway allowed me to follow my mind where it might lead, which as it happened was out the doors of the Catholic Church.
John Paul II had a similar impact when he traveled to Poland in 1978 and inspired the Polish people to reexamine their relationship with their communist oppressors. As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written: “When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport he began the process by which communism in Poland – and ultimately elsewhere in Europe – would come to an end.”
The point is that sometimes words and gestures matter, especially when the circumstances are ripe for change. We seem to be at another such juncture now, and fortunately—most surprisingly—appear to have a Pope rising to the occasion. It is clear to our most astute economists, our boldest politicians, and our wisest rich men that capitalism has become untethered, and that wild, unbridled capitalism is every bit the danger to democracy as communism ever was.
And to be clear…capitalism and democracy are two entirely different things. One is an economic system and one is a political system. We have this Pope now who gets that. Evangelii Gaudium, his recent Vatican statement on the threat unregulated capitalism poses to the creation of a more humane and democratic society, is unambiguous, as demonstrated in these excerpts:
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems...I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth...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. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”Wordsmith that I am by inclination and profession, I am particularly fond of his choice of “crude” and “naïve” to describe the character of those who contrive to turn niggardliness into a virtue. Describing corporate leaders who sit on a trillion dollars rather than invest in the society that allowed them to make that money as “job creators” is the obvious example of the crudity to which the Pope refers. Those who fall for such propaganda and pass it on as gospel truth are the most obvious example of the naiveté.
When Stuart Varney of Fox business news went after the Pope for his statement, he added a third trait that characterizes the fetishists of utterly free markets—stupidity. Varney said, “Capitalism, in my opinion, is a liberator. The free choice of millions of people is the essence of freedom. In my opinion, society benefits most when people are free to pursue their own self-interest.” Of course anyone with a ninth grader’s command of history knows that unfettered capitalism has brought us slave labor, sweat shops, child labor, 80-hour work weeks, toxic rivers, polluted air, and government corruption. It hasn’t liberated anyone other than those with the most money.
Varney further said, “I go to church to save my soul. It’s got nothing to do with my vote. Pope Francis has linked the two. He has offered direct criticism of a specific political system. He has characterized negatively that system.”
And there you have a cabbage brain in full flower…a man with his own show on a business channel--shoveling the slop of his opinions out daily to gullible viewers--believes that capitalism is the American political system. Capitalism, of course, would like to be the American political system. Chase, and Goldman Sachs, and Walmart, and frickin’ Fox itself would love to own our ballot boxes and post their logos on them and charge us to vote, but until they finally succeed in buying up every single one of our legislators and judges, democracy still has a fighting chance.
I suspect that those who see what amoral and undisciplined capitalism is doing to our democracy feel as those living in communist Poland felt in the 1970s—that the tyranny of the absolutists was too overwhelming to overcome. But along came a Papal visit, some well-chosen Papal words, and suddenly a movement was born that overturned an alleged historical inevitability. The same thing may happen again. This Pope, like all great leaders, does not have to be perfect in every way. He just has to come along at the right time and seize the moment…and this is what I call seizing the moment:
No to an economy of exclusion. 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. 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? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the 'leftovers.'Speaking of words, I haven't used this one in earnest in about 40 years, but I use it in earnest here…Amen.
No to the new idolatry of money. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption. 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. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.