The anti-capitalist pope?

The new boss in the Vatican isn't so different from the old ones, writes Lance Selfa.

Pope Francis at his inaugurationPope Francis at his inauguration

WITHIN HOURS of Time magazine naming Pope Francis I as its 2013 "Person of the Year," there were voices of protest heard across the world.

Some, like journalist Glenn Greenwald, made the quite legitimate point that ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, with his disclosure of the federal government's massive spying apparatus, had a bigger impact on events in 2013 than the pope.

But the loudest wailing and gnashing of teeth was heard from the precincts of the political right--which seemed to have convinced itself that Time was part of a global conspiracy to promote anti-capitalism, with Pope Francis as its shill.

Time's choice of the pope as its number-one newsmaker ended up capping a two-week media frenzy launched with the Vatican's release of the Pope Francis' first major written statement--known as an apostolic exhortation--titled "The Joy of the Gospel." The frenzy centered on about four paragraphs in the more than 50,000-word document, which mostly discussed the Roman Catholic Church's religious outreach.

Those four paragraphs took aim at neoliberal capitalism, which Francis characterized as "an economy of exclusion":

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.

The pope went on to chastise the apostles of free-market economics who:

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.

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.

Cue the outrage from the defenders of privilege, inequality and capitalism. Radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh accused the pope of spouting Marxism. The Wall Street Journal's repulsive writer on Latin America, Mary Anastasia O' Grady, accused the pope of providing a moral justification for "state tyranny" against "economic freedom."

The clamor reached reductio ad absurdum with the biblical scholarship of Virginia Tea Party activist Jonathon Moseley, who told the right-wing World Net Daily: "One truth shines out from the Bible: Jesus spoke to the individual, never to government or government policy...Jesus was a capitalist, preaching personal responsibility, not a socialist."

Capitalism emerged about 17 centuries after Jesus lived--but I suppose if you accept that Jesus was the son of God, he could have invented it a little early, right?

While the right wing squealed, many on the liberal and secular side of the political spectrum--people who often find themselves criticizing the Catholic Church for one reason or another--rallied to the pope's side.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes, a self-described lapsed Catholic, declared Francis "the best pope ever." Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO, said, "Pope Francis' speech is very similar to our message at the AFL-CIO. The values expressed by the Pope are the values the labor movement embraces." Neera Tanden of the liberal Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress, gushed, "As a progressive, I think the pope kinda rocks."

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WHAT ARE we to make of all this?

The first thing to note is that Francis' critiques of capitalism in "The Joy of the Gospel" stand out for how unlike they are from the rest of it. The main purpose of the document was to lay out a strategy for promoting Catholism in today's world. Even the right-wing Catholic publication First Things praised Francis' ultra-orthodox statements on marriage and abortion in "The Joy of the Gospel."

In fact, if you compare Francis' statements about capitalism, labor, poverty and inequality to similar statements that popes have issued over the last 120 years, you would find little differences between them. Going back to Pope Leo XVI's 1891 encyclical (i.e., papal letter) "Rerum Novarum," the Vatican has maintained a consistent perspective that supported the right of workers to form unions, opposed both extremes of communism and unbridled capitalism, emphasized the role of the state and the rich in helping the poor, and defended private property as a right.

To the extent that you can call the Catholic Church's social teaching "anti-capitalist," it's a "romantic anti-capitalism" that hearkens back to a pre-industrial ideal of an "organic" society, without cutthroat capitalists or class struggle. In this view, a moral society is one in which the rich recognize their obligations to the poor and workers, and workers and the poor, in return, refrain from violence, rioting or vandalism.

At best, this is a social democratic view of modern society. In its origins, it has more in common with a feudal or paternalistic view of society.

But it's hardly a "Marxist" view. While it may recognize the existence of social classes, the Catholic orthodoxy doesn't champion class struggle as the motor force for change in the world. Nor does it argue for a society in which workers democratically decide what to produce and how to allocate society's resources.

In fact, Pope Francis' "The Joy of the Gospel" advocates for:

Ethics--a non-ideological ethics--[that] would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order...Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.

And in case Rush Limbaugh can't figure it out, the pope left little doubt about his ideological leanings in a December 14 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, "The ideology of Marxism is wrong," he said. "But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended."

Francis went on to defend his criticism of "trickle-down economics," but added, "I repeat: I did not talk as a specialist, but according to the social doctrine of the church. And this does not mean being a Marxist."

In any event, it would be a strange Marxist who sat atop one of the world's richest institutions--the Vatican.

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IF THE pope himself thinks his statements are unremarkable, then why are they being characterized as a "breath of fresh air" from many quarters? This is largely due to the perceived differences between Francis' message and that of his immediate predecessors, especially the pompous and illiberal Pope Benedict.

The previous popes--plus the majority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. especially--foregrounded the Church's reactionary stances on abortion, contraception, equal marriage and the role of women, in their public statements.

When, in 2004, leading U.S. bishops denied Democratic presidential candidate and Catholic John Kerry the right to receive communion at Mass--on the basis of his support for a woman's right to choose abortion--the Vatican backed them up. This week, Pope Francis announced he was demoting the former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who led the charge against Kerry.

The bishops were at it again last year, joining with the fundamentalist religious right in opposing Barack Obama's health care law because if its mandates to cover a number of reproductive health services.

In contrast to the severe stances of his predecessors, Pope Francis earlier this year caught the ear of the world media when he was quoted as saying "Who am I to judge?" when asked about his view of homosexuality. Later, the pope made news during the Easter season when he included female prisoners in the Holy Week "washing of the feet," a ritual of humility and service, performed at a youth prison. One would never have seen the austere and imperious Benedict do such things.

Yet these small gestures are more likely evidence of marketing and public relations savvy than a real change in Church positions on gay rights or women's rights. Francis doesn't hold significantly different positions on any of the issues identified with the Church's social conservatism than did Benedict or John Paul II.

In fact, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires before his elevation to the papacy, Cardinal Bergoglio led the campaign against equal marriage in Argentina. He was perceived as a scourge toward moderately liberal Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández Kirchner.

But in an era when the papacy has a Twitter feed and his media adviser was once a former Fox News official, the pope knows how to shape the news to his advantage. It's even likely that the Vatican worked the media--not known for its ability to parse long statements of Church doctrine--to focus on the few passages on income inequality in "The Joy of the Gospel."

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THE QUESTION to answer is why. And here, it has to be said: if there's any institution in need of an image makeover, it's the Catholic Church.

Francis and the cardinals who chose him last March understood this. They lead a historically European institution whose membership now comes primarily from the global South. Forty percent of Catholics live in Central and South America, where the Church faces stiff competition for adherents from fundamentalist Protestant denominations.

Plus, an institution whose top officials were seen as obsessed with lecturing followers about their sex lives and private morality lost credibility with every new revelation of child sexual abuse and church cover-ups.

These two observations alone help explain why Francis is putting social conservative dogma on the back burner, while speaking more publicly about the needs of the poor. The pope admits as much in "The Joy of the Gospel": "It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an 'ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.'"

If Karl Marx was correct in his famous statement about religion--that it's "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions"--then Catholicism has to remain relevant to the needs and desires of its followers. Just as the popes of the late 19th century developed a social doctrine that responded to a world where the Church's followers were attracted to the labor and socialist movements, Pope Francis today is attempting to respond to the obscene inequality of wealth that stunts the lives of billions around the world.

In the spirit of this holiday season, we can be thankful that the pope's statements are causing Rush Limbaugh's and Megyn "Jesus and Santa were white" Kelly's heads to explode.

But we should take the pope's proposed "ethical" solution to inequality with a grain of salt. After all, didn't the pope's favorite philosopher once say: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God?"