Maybe Pope Francis will become for the United States and the West what Pope John Paul II was to the Soviet Union and the East.
Pope Francis has written what is known as an “apostolic exhortation,” a 50,000-word statement challenging many of the assumptions of the capitalist West, particularly unbridled free market economics and the human toll that it is taking. He also said the church needed to take steps to embrace a greater presence for women.
Pope John Paul II is revered in part because of his courageous stand challenging the communist ideology of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. That John Paul was from Poland gave his views moral standing and international legitimacy that weakened the grip of the communist establishment, especially in Poland. The crumbling of communist regimes in the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere became not exactly inevitable, but more likely after John Paul helped Eastern Europeans to see that the emperor had no clothes, that communist ideology was as morally bankrupt as they thought it was.
It should be remembered that John Paul was also critical of the heartless materialism of the West. His views were similar to those of author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian emigre author, Nobel laureate and former resident of Cavendish, who was a courageous foe of the Soviet Union but also a harsh critic of crass, soulless consumerism.
Francis’ statement is startlingly direct.
“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,” Francis wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
“Meanwhile,” he said, “the excluded are still waiting.”
If John Paul’s standing as a Pole gave added weight to his critique of communism, Francis’ pronouncements may gain added weight because he is Argentinian. South America, one of the great Catholic regions of the world, has also been subject to great economic inequality because of the power of economic oligarchs to maintain their hold on their nations’ wealth. And that is the direction the United States has been heading.
There is little doubt that Francis had the United States in mind. The term “trickle-down” appeared in the English translation of his message. It refers to the doctrine advanced mainly by Republicans holding that allowing economic freedom to the rich through low taxes and minimal economic regulation promotes the creation of wealth that then trickles down to everyone else.
This is a doctrine, according to Francis, that “has never been confirmed by the facts.” It is based on a “crude and naive trust” in rich people and a tendency to view the capitalist system as sacred.
These are astonishing assertions. Liberals will praise them because they are in accord with the views they have been promoting since Ronald Reagan became a champion of trickle-down. Conservative Catholics may find themselves in a bind. Francis is their spiritual leader. They must know that Francis’ views come from a source other than the American liberal blogosphere, MSNBC, The Nation magazine or the Obama White House. In fact, Catholic teaching has a rich current of concern for the poor and for economic justice. Francis, who was elevated to the papacy in March, has made a point of demonstrating the virtue of humility, publicly washing the feet of prison inmates and eschewing the rich trappings of office.
In his statement he criticized the “idolatry of money,” which he said can lead to a “new tyranny.” It is a welcome message at a time when the United States is seeking to confront the temples of money on Wall Street and to find ways to secure greater economic justice for the people as a whole.
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