Pope Francis’s Option for the Poor, Part 4: The Pope on “Savage Capitalism”

One admirable quality of Archbishop Charles Chaput is that he has no time for euphemism, coyness, or evasion. (For examples unrelated to the point I make below, see this interview and also comments of his reported here.) This quality was clear in comments that the archbishop made recently to journalist John Allen, Jr., on the  topic of Pope Francis.

“[T]he right wing of the church,” Chaput said, “generally have not been really happy about his election.”

Chaput’s intention was not to criticize those who make up the Church’s “right wing.” Indeed, many would count him among them. (Chaput himself apparently would not. He says he knows of the right wing’s displeasure “from what I’ve been able to read and to understand,” as though he’s been studying the phenomenon in a textbook or a lab, and he refers to the people who make it up as “them,” not “us.”) Chaput’s benign intentions are most clear in his insistence, in the same breath, that the Pope will “have to care for them [that is, the right wing], too.” He was simply making an observation about a reality that most other church leaders today understand — perhaps because they too are among the group in question — but have not yet acknowledged publicly.

Chaput is right, of course. “Conservatives” have been often frustrated, sometimes angered, and sometimes baffled by our new pope. The reasons are several. One of the strongest is the unambiguous and clear criticisms that Pope Francis has offered of the global economic system that many on “the right” have worked hard to defend not only as good but as consistent with Catholic doctrine.

To be sure, distrust of global capitalism has been a hallmark of modern Catholic social teaching from its inception. But it is fair to say that previous popes have presented that teaching in a way that has often allowed space for a vibrant defense of free-market capitalism in the context of church teaching. (Anyone familiar with the work of Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Robert Sirico will immediately think of them here.) With Francis, that space is much smaller, and his thinking allows for a defense that is not so much vibrant as tepid.

Indeed, Pope Francis has not hesitated to warn us of a “savage capitalism” that is dominant today and to speak of the consumerism upon which it depends as “one of the most dangerous threats of our times.” These convictions are a fascinating aspect of the option for the poor that has become central to his ministry and draws him closer to what liberation theologians intended originally by the term in a way that previous popes had perhaps avoided.

A Threat to Faith

Francis’s comment about “one of the most dangerous threats of our times” was especially eye-catching, since it came less than a week after his election as pope. When a brand new pope uses a phrase like that, it’s worth taking notice, because it will offer some important insight into where his priorities will be. Coming from the mouth of Benedict, for example, the subject of the statement would likely have been secularism, or maybe relativism. From many other church leaders here in the U.S. today, it would be religious freedom or gay marriage.

What threat earns such strong words from Francis? It is, he said, “the vision of the human person with a single dimension to prevail, according to which man is reduced to what he produces and to what he consumes.” The word we use to describe that vision is consumerism, which is not only a hallmark of our Western capitalist economies, but an aspect of it that is essential to its success.

More recently, the Pope spoke of this consumerism as a threat to the personal encounter with Jesus that each Christian is called to. Having just returned from the remarkable experience of World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janiero, the Pope commented in a Sunday afternoon Angeles address in Saint Peter’s Square: “The encounter with the living Jesus, in the great family that is the church, fills the heart with joy, because it fills it with true life, a profound goodness that does not pass away or decay. But this experience must face the daily vanity, the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having (things), that deludes young people with consumerism.”

So, the well-being of capitalism depends on a vibrant consumerism, and a vibrant consumerism is a threat to one’s relationship with Jesus. The conclusion is pretty clear: a strong capitalistic economy is a threat to the relationship with Jesus of each person who lives within it — and therefore, of course, to their faith and salvation. No wonder Francis calls it a “poison.” And his reasons for speaking of “savage capitalism” become more clear. The latter comment came during a May 2013 visit to a soup kitchen and women’s shelter run at the Vatican by the Missionaries of Charity. “A savage capitalism,” he said, “has taught the logic of profit at any cost, of giving in order to get, of exploitation without thinking of people… and we see the results in the crisis we are experiencing.”

Truth to Power

Though at the food kitchen the Pope was speaking among people living in poverty, he has not hesitated to speak the same truths directly to the powerful leaders who guide the political and, in important ways, economic structures of our society.

This came first in the context of a May 2013 meeting of the Pope with a group of new ambassadors to the Holy See, a rather routine event on his calendar that would ordinarily call for some perfunctory and unremarkable comments by the Pope. But on this occasion, Pope Francis chose to address the world economic situation in words that were anything but perfunctory. As I have pointed out already on this blog, depending on your choice of news source, you would have read the next day that the Pope slammed, attacked, denounced, ripped, hit out at, blasted, railed against, warned against, criticized, or condemned the “the cult of money” that marks the global economy, an economy that he called “faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”

It is difficult to pick out just a few lines from what he had to say. His comments that day were packed with phrases and sentences quite jarring in their meaning:

Ladies and Gentlemen, our human family is presently experiencing something of a turning point in its own history, if we consider the advances made in various areas. We can only praise the positive achievements which contribute to the authentic welfare of mankind, in fields such as those of health, education and communications. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. Certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident. People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way. One cause of this situation, in my opinion, is in the our relationship with money, and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society. Consequently the financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in a profound human crisis. In the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have begun a throw away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules. Moreover, indebtedness and credit distance countries from their real economy and citizens from their real buying power. Added to this, as if it were needed, is widespread corruption and selfish fiscal evasion which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The will to power and of possession has become limitless.

Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God. Ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance! It is regarded as counterproductive: as something too human, because it relativizes money and power; as a threat, because it rejects manipulation and subjection of people: because ethics leads to God, who is situated outside the categories of the market. These financiers, economists and politicians consider God to be unmanageable, unmanageable even dangerous, because he calls man to his full realization and to independence from any kind of slavery. Ethics – naturally, not the ethics of ideology – makes it possible, in my view, to create a balanced social order that is more humane. In this sense, I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs” (Homily on Lazarus, 1:6 – PG 48, 992D).

We can’t miss the fact that Francis insists here that our economic structures and practices deny “the primacy of human beings”; that they are like “the golden calf of old”; and that they are based upon “the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption.” He has the chutzpah not only to cite the powerful statement of St. John Chrysostom that summarizes so well the Church’s teaching on the universal destination of goods — “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs” — but even directly to invite “the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries” to consider them.

If you’re tempted to dismiss these comments of his as having been made at an insignificant gathering to which few will pay attention, then don’t miss the letter the Pope wrote to British Prime Minister David Cameron on the occasion of the June 2013 G8 Summit, which gathered together the leaders of the eight most powerful nations in the world. Here the Bishop of Rome writes directly to those who hold the seats of highest political power on the planet. In it, he insisted repeatedly that economic activity must be guided by ethics, always serving the needs of the human person, and not the other way around. In a key paragraph he wrote:

Moreover, the goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers’ wombs. Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.

Acknowledging a place in economic activity for freedom and creativity – important aspects of what we call the free market – the Pope said that “all political and economic activity, whether national or international” must be carried out in a way that promotes and guarantees respect for human solidarity, “with particular attention to the poorest.” He praised the group’s efforts “to eliminate definitively the scourge of hunger and to ensure food security.”

To be sure, elements of this thinking have been present in papal teaching before — notably in that of Pius XI, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. But all of the above, coming rapidly and in the very first months of a new pontificate, represents a much more direct papal assault than we have previously seen upon the economic structures of the West, the aggressive capitalism they support, and the relentless consumerism upon which it all depends.

Part 5 of this series will consider how Pope Francis’s option for the poor is in continuity with his predecessors and how it is new.

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