By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Hey guys, just back from my trip to San Francisco and what do I find on my return? Well it looks like that most calcified of religious institutions has gone California, too? The first Pope from South America seems to have veered the church leftward with two recent messages to the faithful that said, in essence, that capitalism isn’t all that. First, in a scathing speech on Wednesday, Pope Francis slammed the type of predatory capitalism that results in the tragedy of the Bangladesh sweatshop collapse. Catering to western desires for cheap but swanky department store clothing, the human mill in Bangladesh cranked out fashion for consumers at a feverish pace. The shortcut to achieve this profit was a thrown-together building constructed of toothpicks and sealing wax. Not really — but close enough for 400 people to die and scores of others to be maimed when the structure fell. Francis took dead aim at the greed and the greedy that caused these deaths calling it “slave labor”:
“Not paying a just (wage), not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit. That goes against God!”
Second, on Thursday, this thoroughly modern pontiff took to social media to hammer the point. Tweeting his message, Pope Francis said “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.” Two and a half million followers on Twitter and over one billion Catholics got the message. Five thousand of them re-tweeted.
In fairness, both previous Pope Benedict and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have made similar, if half-hearted, appeals for economic fairness but this pontiff from Argentina has put the matter front and center. Francis harkens back to one of the most discredited of regional Catholic movements – liberation theology. This blast from the 60s -70s contended that religion provided a political as well as spiritual path to salvation. It said poverty was the work of sin and that sin was greed and exploitation of the weak and poor by the politically and hence economically powerful. Specifically, catholic clergy throughout Central and South America preached that their faith was to be “an interpretation … through the poor’s suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor.” The sine qua non was social justice aimed at lifting the poor from their grinding poverty. Predictably, conservative detractors in the Holy See called it “Christianized Marxism” and got their buds at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (that’s right the once and rightly named Holy Inquisition run by none other than the guy we now call Pope Benedict) to condemn the whole philosophy for portraying the wealthy Catholic leadership in South America as members of the same economic class as the political oppressors of the day. Talk about speaking truth to power … power don’t like it much.
But this Argentine pope, born in a barrio to a father who fled his native Italy to avoid the fascists, could be the worst nightmare for the church’s now dominant right-wing. As someone willing to take on the fight for the poor and oppressed, he stands in stark contrast to the ancien régime who said all the right things about fighting poverty but who did so over tea with some of the world’s most exploitive governments. This pope, who eschewed the trappings of wealth and privilege while a cardinal in Buenos Aries, might actually be willing to get his hands dirty and put boots on the ground in this seemingly unending war. With his actions over the past few days, he has certainly taken on the mantle. If so, the church might be heading for as cataclysmic a schism as the day Martin Luther nailed those 95 theses on the door to All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.
And Martin Luther is an apt symbol for what is going on here. The 16th century German monk, who railed against the practice of the wealthy purchasing pardons from the Church to exonerate their sins on earth and grease the skids for their ride to Heaven, may have been more prescient of future events than anyone knew when he wrote:
Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.
Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger