The Smart Money: The Pope, Liberation Theology, and Economic Inequality

Posted Tuesday, December 3, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The Pope, Liberation Theology, and Economic Inequality

graph by Dave Gilson

by Gina Hamilton

Pope Francis I has made some startling statements in recent days.  Well, startling if you're a first world capitalist, anyhow.

About a week ago, he attacked "idolatry of money".  But then the next day, he issued an apostolic exhortation (and for those who never went to catechism class, that's a document that doesn't in fact define church doctrine (like an encyclical), but carries more weight than a papal letter).  It was 84 pages, the first work Francis has undertaken as Pope.

In it, he called unfettered capitalism "a new tyranny", urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality. 

"Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills," he wrote in the exhortation, released last Tuesday. "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? As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems," he wrote.

Strong stuff, and not what Catholics or anyone else is used to hearing out of the Vatican.  So it's hardly surprising that the reaction by the right has been so vociferous.  Some merely point out that Francis is not an economist, which is true enough, but even so, he seems to have a better handle on the global economy than most Wall Street firms or economics professors. “...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 ... has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power...Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting," he wrote.

Can anyone - JP Morgan, Forbes Magazine, or Rush Limbaugh - actually deny his claim?  They can't, because what Francis said is absolutely true. 

Now, Francis' background has a lot to do with this particular call to arms.  The new pope had distanced himself from liberation theology while a bishop in South America, but clearly he was giving it some thought, because in August, he received Peruvian priest Gustavo Guitierrez in Rome, widely held to be the father of liberation theology.  Essentially, liberation theology interprets the Gospel from the perspective of the poor, finding in the Gospel calls for liberation from unjust economic, social, and political conditions.  Many liberation theologians were killed as part of "Marxist" purges during the 80s in Central and South America. Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) at the time ordered them to stop preaching liberation theology, on the basis that it was political and temporal, and would lead the people to reject hierarchy, including the hierarchy of the church itself. Even so, Ratzinger supported the basic premise of standing up for the poor and even interceding for the poor with temporal authorities when necessary.

Francis, on the other hand, is condemning the hierarchy of the church himself, and giving full-throated support to the liberationists, if not ... yet ... changing doctrine.  Give him time.

The inequality Francis refers to is economic, not political, but the evidence is clear.  In the U.S. alone, income for the vast majority of Americans has declined or stagnated, except for one group - the so-called one percent, who have seen their income more than double since 1979.

Anecdotally, the stories are horrific.  People working full time jobs, sometimes more than one, are dependent on the government for food support and health care for themselves and their children, while owners or CEOs of the companies where these folks work are taking hundreds of millions of dollars for a salary, and more hundreds of millions when the company finally gets fed up with them and cans them.  People who were counting on pensions for retirement lost them when the company went bankrupt, or are getting much smaller pensions than they thought they'd get, while the millionaire CEOs lose nothing on the deal.  People who are functionally middle class have their 401K in the stock and bond markets and lose much of it because large banks are playing games with 'creative' instruments like credit default swaps.

And despite the far right's tendency to blame the victim of the 'killing economy' by insisting they are "takers", "pay no income tax", or "didn't do what they should have done to succeed in life" (such as get a degree), the facts tend to speak for themselves if one looks beyond the talking points.  People - including degreed professionals - have earning power that is less or about the same as they did in 1989.  Across the board, people are expected to do more with less on the job, hiring five people rather than the ten that used to do the work.  This makes productivity look really good - but it does so on the backs of workers who probably haven't had a raise in four years.  Meanwhile, bankers who lost billions are getting end of year bonuses that would make some small countries blush.

The Catholic Church has been wrong about many, many things, and has a stain on its collective name because of the child rape scandal that should shame them hideously.  But in this situation, the new Pope is absolutely on the side of the angels.  Will anyone listen?

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