Pope Francis, a Pope of the People, takes up the cause of the poor
by John Lawrence
I like this new Pope even though I’m not Catholic. What’s not to like about a Pope who eschews those fancy red shoes and wears the basic black Payless variety instead? He even carries his own luggage, takes public transportation and pays his own hotel bills. Clearly there is something different about this Pope. I liked Pope John Paul too,who articulated the “preferential option for the poor.” The preferential option for the poor refers to a trend, throughout the Judeo-Christian Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society.
According to said doctrine, through one’s words, prayers, and deeds one must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. Therefore, when instituting public policy one must always keep the “preferential option for the poor” at the forefront of one’s mind. Accordingly, this doctrine implies that the moral test of any society is “how it treats its most vulnerable members.” The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the new Pope took on the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the first Jesuit Pope. In 1209 St Francis of Assisi heard a sermon that changed his life forever. The sermon was about the fact that Jesus told his followers that they should go forth with their mission and should take no money with them, not even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty.
As the first Pope from Latin America and notably from a country that repudiated its debt to western bankers and successfully charted a course away from debt based capitalism, there is a possibility that this Pope will exercise his considerable moral authority to promote a new form of economic reality in which equality and economic security replace the debt based capitalism and unbridled greed which has only promoted the interests of the rich and increased the gap between rich and poor.
Pope Francis was one of the principal authors of a key document written at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil in 2007 that condemned “the greed of the market” and championed “communal prerogatives over individual rights” something that won’t win him kudos from the Wall Street and right wing, conservative crowd.
Championing communal prerogatives over individual rights is anathema to the American way of life that idolizes greed and individual freedom above all else. It wasn’t always this way. In western civilization usury or the charging of interest used to be forbidden. The Christian church in medieval Europe banned the charging of interest at any rate. Most religions including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity have forbidden usury at one time or other. Islam still does today.
However, after the Reformation, it was decided that it was OK for Christians to charge interest on lent money. Protestantism gave impetus to the relaxation of the Biblical imprecations against capitalism. In his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism“, Max Weber argued that Protestantism made the imprecations against the accumulation of money that Jesus spoke about passe and removed the moral and ethical stigma from wealth accumulation. Greed used to be one of the seven deadly sins. But no more. According to Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie “Wall Street” his character Gordon Gekko says “Greed is good.” This has become conventional wisdom.
Perhaps Pope Francis can restigmatize the excessive greed that modern western capitalism represents and side with the Latin American and other BRIC countries that are seeking a different form of economic organization that doesn’t impoverish the poor and create magnificent wealth for the already rich, the upper 1%. Modern capitalism, with its derivatives, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, high frequency algorithmic trading and other super sophisticated forms of monetary finagling, could find itself in the same moral and ethical class that usury was relegated to in Medieval Europe. Pope Francis could be a moral force in that direction.
But instead of the mainstream media circulating Pope Francis’ views on capitalism and his championing of communal values over individual rights, they made a big thing over his statement that he wouldn’t be judgmental towards the gays. As Bill Maher said, and I paraphrase, Jesus never said a word about homosexuality and yet on every page of his book (which Bill points out he has read) Jesus was putting down the rich and the accumulation of money. Somehow this has been lost in many branches of Christianity over the last 2000 years. The Protestant Reformation, particularly Calvinism, has had a lot to do with this reversal. But if a person really took to heart what Jesus purportedly said, they couldn’t in good conscience be capitalists.
Things Jesus said like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” When asked by the rich man what he had to do to go to heaven, Jesus replied, “Sell all your things and give the proceeds to the poor and come and follow me.” Jesus talked about the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields. “Look at the birds of the air. They neither sew nor reap nor gather into barns but your heavenly Father takes care of them. Are you not more valuable than them.” In other words they don’t seek to accumulate wealth, the hallmark of western style capitalism. Jesus was the archetypal hippie and champion of communal values!
“Matthew 6:19-21 — “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 25:34-40 — “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
Jesus’ only act of aggression, contradicting his Prince of Peace appellation, was in overturning the money changers’ tables at the temple. An honest reading of the new testament would have to conclude that Jesus placed communal values and in particular a preferential option for the poor ahead of the individual right of wealth accumulation. But most branches of Christianity, particularly the right wing evangelicals, have conveniently forgotten this and convinced themselves of the opposite. By their own individual virtue thay seek admittance to the Kingdom of Heaven in the same way they seek the individual accumulation of wealth in this life. Communal values have been replaced by individual values both spiritual and secular.
Pope Francis could be a force for the moral and ethical reformulation that would stigmatize unbridled wealth accumulation at the expense of the poor and middle class as well as a repudiation of debt based capitalism and the reassertion of the value of shared prosperity for all with the most poverty stricken being served first.