WHAT OTHERS SAY: Pope Francis' anti-capitalism message resonates

Thursday, December 5, 2013 | 1:47 p.m. CST; updated 2:54 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 5, 2013

"The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."

That stunning indictment of free-market economies didn’t come from the 20th century writings of Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin.

They were made on Nov. 26 by the charming, challenging, Ford-driving head of the Catholic Church for the past eight months, Pope Francis.

In his first “apostolic exhortation,” titled “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis takes a bead on modern capitalism, specifically condemning “trickle-down” economic policies — that love child of the late President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Coming just before the frenzied day of consumer mania, nicknamed “Black Friday” — almost as though mocking a religious holy day — the pope’s sentiments couldn’t be clearer.

He says in the exhortation that the great danger in today’s consumer-driven society is “the desolation and anguish” that come from a “covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”

The comments could have special resonance here in St. Louis, coming just before the Missouri General Assembly met to consider “the feverish pursuit” of thousands of Boeing jobs, or as city officials gathered to welcome Swedish furniture retailer IKEA to the city. Frivolous pleasures, indeed.

Pope Francis warns that whenever one’s interior life gets caught up in its own interests, “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”

Oh, right, the poor. If the Salvation Army bellringer isn’t outside at the shopping center as a reminder, it’s nearly guaranteed that the siren’s lure of goods for sale will drown out thoughts of the poor and needy.

Shopping malls and other monuments to excessive consumerism do in effect what the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did in Victorian England. They remove poor people from sight, making it easy to forget their needs and to squelch pangs of conscience over the hedonism of spending.

Before the Poor Law took effect, the poor were cared for within their parishes, where they were known and where people saw them regularly and had a personal interest in their welfare. The point of the law was to curb public spending on poverty and to discourage the poor from applying for help unless they were desperate.

That sort of thinking is what concerns Pope Francis in his 224-page exhortation on the future of the Catholic Church. He condemns income inequality, the “culture of prosperity” (which is actually embraced and idolized in some other churches and denominations), and “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

Don’t dismiss the pope’s populist message. It is radical, particularly when viewed in the context of the last half-century of Roman Catholicism during which church leaders fought communism as the economic enemy.

At the end of World War II the Catholic Church officially excommunicated communists and declared the ideology at odds with fundamental tenets of Catholic faith. At that point, the church favored the West and democracy, and supported the free-market economic principles.

It is partly this history that has given more importance to Pope Francis’ words. He is not only condemning what he sees as a failed free-market, he is also speaking out against the ethic and ideology that underlies the economic model.

The message meshes nicely with President Barack Obama’s economic speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C., in which he properly called the nation’s growing income inequality — that gap between rich and poor — the “defining challenge of our time.”

Part of this nation’s current economic challenge is that the free market isn’t really free anymore, not that it ever truly was. Government has been co-opted by business to shift all the benefits to the rich and away from the poor and the middle class.

“The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” Mr. Obama said on Wednesday.

It is with this sentiment in mind that Pope Francis suggested the global economy needs more government control of financial markets, which is anathema to what a pope would have said five decades ago. Pope Francis writes: “It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and health care.”

Notice that he does not write about access to material goods, or about political unwillingness to help create a health care system that includes the poor, or the dysfunctional educational system that excludes the vulnerable.

What the pope is saying is that it is up to all of us to care for the least among us. He is saying this not only as theology, but also as a practical matter. He talks about the gap widening between the majority of people and the prosperous, and says that as a result “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.”

Our government leaders should reject such tyranny, rooted in the crony capitalism that has come to represent the nation’s not-so-free market.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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