The infatuation makes Francis much more than a spiritual leader. He is a cultural and political icon, just as John Paul II was during the early years of his papacy. But while the Polish-born John Paul purged the Roman Catholic Church of Marxist liberation theology, becoming an agent in the fall of the communism, the Argentine Francis has modern capitalism in his crosshairs.
So, who doesn’t love this Pope? More than a few rich capitalists and conservatives who feel targeted by Francis’s frontal attacks on what they believe to be a fundamentally moral undertaking: wealth creation. Where they see capitalism as the economic system most conducive to development of one’s God-given talents, the Pope sees a tool of oppression.
“Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), his first so-called apostolic exhortation. “Masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
Francis seemed to take a direct shot at U.S. Republicans by denouncing “trickle-down theories” as “crude and naive.” He decried the “new tyranny” of “ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” and that “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”
Evangelii Gaudium’s November release sparked questions about whether Francis, the first Latin American Pope, was resuscitating the liberation doctrine that dominated the church in his part of the world for decades. Right-wing dictators were ousted in favour of socialist-leaning regimes. But the Pope quickly told Italy’s La Stampa newspaper that “Marxist ideology is wrong.”
Still, Francis’s comments about capitalism and inequality have already done almost as much to change the political calculus in Washington as any election. Republicans who invoke God at every turn are suddenly forced to explain themselves while Catholic Democrats denied communion for supporting abortion rights now use the Pope’s teachings to push their policy ideas.
“The guy is from Argentina; they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” Republican congressman and budget hawk Paul Ryan said after the release of Evangelii Gaudium. “They have crony capitalism in Argentina.”
Francis’s comments have taken on particular salience as Democrats commemorate the 50th anniversary of president Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty, which led to a massive expansion of the U.S. social safety net with the creation of Medicare and food-stamp programs. Republican efforts to cut both programs would seem to put them on the wrong side of Rome.
Even President Barack Obama, who has clashed with U.S. bishops over the contraception provisions of his health-care law, has quoted Francis in pushing Republicans to renew expired benefits for the long-term unemployed and raise the $7.25 (U.S.) federal minimum wage.
Last month, Mr. Obama reportedly ordered his speechwriters to include a passage from Evangelii Gaudium in a speech he was set to deliver on economic mobility. “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” Mr. Obama said in the speech. “The Pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length: ‘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?’ ”
Is this laying it on a bit thick? It was the Protestant work ethic (admittedly not exactly a point of reference for Catholics) that made the United States the world’s richest country and the ethos of individual responsibility has provided American capitalism with its moral foundation. Americans remain the world’s most generous people, according to the World Giving Index. American billionaires dominate the list of rich people who have promised to devote at least half of their wealth to charity under the so-called Giving Pledge. And global capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions more people out of poverty than foreign aid.
Of course, the free market has also produced far too many wolves of Wall Street and if the Pope doesn’t draw attention to the excessive inequality of our times, who will? But so far, Francis is making himself a hard Pope for many capitalists to love.