This article by Emma Green in The Atlantic points out the radical shift laid out in Pope Francis' first "Apostolic Exhortation, Evangeli Gaudium," away from the Roman Catholic Church's historic anti-communism to what he sees as the real dominant threat to human dignity in our day, capitalism.
In this context, 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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.(taken directly from the official text of the Pope's Exhortation)
He actually used the term "trickle-down!" Take THAT supply side economics! So Jesus didn't create the Free Market after all. I wonder what that devout Roman Catholic Randian Paul Ryan must be thinking now. Ayn Rand must be screaming in his head. Maybe Atlas Shrugged and the Bible don't belong on the same shelf after all.
[editorial insert: upon repeated reading, that passage quoted above is truly remarkable; about as clear and articulate a moral indictment of international consumer capitalism from a religious point of view as any I've ever read]
And let's face it, communism isn't much of a threat these days. No one really believes in that failed religion anymore, not even the Chinese leadership or the Castro or Kim dynasties. The most ferocious enemies of Western liberalism are all religious fanatics of one kind or another. There are no communist (or secular) suicide bombers.
This passage in the Pope's Exhortation is very striking and is beginning to get the attention it deserves:
Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.
It looks to me like he wants to check, or maybe even reverse, the trend towards an ever more centralized monarchical papacy since the days of Pope Pius IX in the 19th century. He appears to be calling for a more conciliar model of authority like the Orthodox churches, even for a less centralized Roman Catholic Church with more autonomous branches. Such an idea is very striking to this still-in-some-respects-very-Protestant Christian.
And there is this passage from the Exhortation that could have come straight out of an Occupy press release:
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 “disposable” 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”.Perhaps the Pope wants to take the Church out of the business of being another collection agency for the banks, another friend of the landlords. That would be a huge change.
I remain cautiously skeptical of the new Pope. The Roman Catholic Church still has a lot of dirty laundry to wash. Pope Francis recently launched a long overdue reform of the too secret workings of the Vatican Bank in the direction of open book-keeping and accountability (which even so harsh a critic of the papacy as Gary Wills has praised). However, the even worse international scandal of child molesting by clergy, and their bishop enablers, remains unaddressed and continues to fester, perhaps fatally poisoning the Church's claims to moral authority.
The Pope intends no change in the Church's policies toward women and gays. However, if he is sincere in his desire to move beyond sex-policing, and if he really goes through with his plans to decentralize church authority, there might be some hope for room for liberalization on these issues on the local level (where liberalization would probably be most successful). I would count it a major victory if the Church, even on the local level, backed off on its active opposition to any civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, independent of the marriage issue. That hasn't happened yet, and I don't know whether or not it ever will. Roman Catholic bishops in the USA remain uniformly and implacably hostile to any legal effort to lessen the marginal status of gays and lesbians. They remain firmly opposed to any protections for gays and lesbians from employment and housing discrimination (though Roman Catholics in the pews can be even more supportive of gay rights issues than allegedly very liberal Mainline Protestant churches).
Even so, all the usual suspects are furious about the new Pope. The Pius X Society is practically foaming at the mouth in rage. As long as that haven for anti-semites and neo-fascists is outraged, then I feel reassured. I sometimes wonder if the College of Cardinals really had any idea what they were voting for in the Sistine Chapel.
So it looks like the Cold War and the 20th century may finally be coming to an end in the walls of the Vatican.
A note of caution: there are a lot of varieties of far right paternalism that can look like progressive criticisms of capitalism at first glance. From the point of view of a far right monarchist or theocrat, capitalism and cosmopolitan liberalism are all of a piece. They certainly were for Sayid Qutb and other radical Islamist thinkers. They were for monarchist right wingers like Charles Maurras. And the conflation of cosmopolitanism with predatory capitalism is still a staple of anti-semitism.
I don't think the current pope is any of those things, but far-right anti-liberalism has long found a home in the Vatican, even now.
Another reason to feel reassured about the new pope: Rush Limbaugh rants about him preaching Marxism.