Pope Francis has defined the economic challenge of this era as the failure of global capitalism to create fairness, equity and dignified livelihoods for the poor.
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — His speeches can blend biblical fury with apocalyptic doom. Pope Francis does not just criticize the excesses of global capitalism. He compares them to the “dung of the devil.” He does not simply argue that systemic “greed for money” is a bad thing. He calls it a “subtle dictatorship” that “condemns and enslaves men and women.”
Having returned to his native Latin America, Francis has renewed his left-leaning critiques on the inequalities of capitalism, describing it as an underlying cause of global injustice, and a prime cause of climate change.
He escalated that line last week when he made a historic apology for the crimes of the Roman Catholic Church during the period of Spanish colonialism, even as he called for a global movement against a “new colonialism” rooted in an inequitable economic order.
The Argentine pope seemed to be asking for a social revolution.
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“This is not theology as usual; this is him shouting from the mountaintop,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The last pope who so boldly placed himself at the center of the global moment was John Paul II, who during the 1980s pushed the church to confront what many saw as the challenge of that era, communism. John Paul II’s anti-communist message dovetailed with the agenda of political conservatives eager for a tougher line against the Soviet Union and, in turn, aligned part of the church hierarchy with the political right.
Francis has defined the economic challenge of this era as the failure of global capitalism to create fairness, equity and dignified livelihoods for the poor, a social and religious agenda that coincides with a resurgence of the leftist thinking marginalized in the days of John Paul II.
Francis’ increasingly sharp critique comes as much of humanity has never been so wealthy or well fed; yet rising inequality and repeated financial crises have unsettled voters, policymakers and economists.
Left-wing populism is surging in countries immersed in economic turmoil, such as Spain and Greece. But even in the United States, where the economy has rebounded, widespread concern about inequality and corporate power is propelling the rise of liberals such as Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who, in turn, have pushed the Democratic Party presidential front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to the left.
Some free-market champions are reassessing the shortcomings of unfettered capitalism. George Soros, who made billions in the markets and then spent a good part of it promoting the spread of free markets in Eastern Europe, now argues the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
“I think the pope is singing to the music that’s already in the air,” said Robert Johnson, executive director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, which was financed with $50 million from Soros. “And that’s a good thing. That’s what artists do, and I think the pope is sensitive to the lack of legitimacy of the system.”
Many Catholic scholars would argue that Francis is merely continuing a line of Catholic social teaching that has existed for more than a century and was embraced by his two conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Leo XIII first called for economic justice on behalf of workers in 1891, with his encyclical “Rerum Novarum” — or, “On Condition of Labor.”
Schneck, of Catholic University, said it was as if Francis were saying: “We’ve been talking about these things for more than 100 years, and nobody is listening.”
Francis has such a strong sense of urgency “because he has been on the front lines with real people, not just numbers and abstract ideas,” Schneck said.
Francis delivered a speech Wednesday night in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, before nearly 2,000 social activists, farmers, trash workers and neighborhood activists. He has often said change must come from the grass roots, whether from poor people or the community organizers who work with them. To Francis, the poor have earned knowledge that is useful and redeeming, even as a “throwaway culture” tosses them aside.
He praised cooperatives and other localized organizations that he said provided productive economies for the poor. “How different this is than the situation that results when those left behind by the formal market are exploited like slaves,” he said Wednesday night.
It is this Old Testament-like rhetoric that some find jarring, perhaps especially so in the United States, where Francis will visit in September.
His environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” released last month, drew loud criticism from some American conservatives and from others who found his language pessimistic. His right-leaning critics also argued he was overreaching and straying dangerously beyond religion while condemning capitalism with too broad a brush.
“I wish Francis would focus on positives, on how a free-market economy guided by an ethical framework, and the rule of law, can be a part of the solution for the poor — rather than just jumping from the reality of people’s misery to the analysis that a market economy is the problem,” said the Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Michigan, which advocates free-market economics.
Francis’ sharpest critics have accused him of being a Marxist or a communist, although he opposed communism during his time in Argentina. His tour last week of Latin America began in Ecuador and Bolivia, two countries with far-left governments. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, who wore a Che Guevara patch on his jacket during Francis’ speech, claimed the pope as a kindred spirit.
Francis’ primary agenda last week was to begin renewing Catholicism in Latin America and repositioning it as the church of the poor. His apology for the church’s complicity in the colonialist era received an immediate roar from the crowd.
In various parts of Latin America, the association between the church and economic power elites remains intact: In Chile, a socially conservative country, some members of the country’s corporate elite are also members of Opus Dei, the traditionalist Catholic organization founded in Spain in 1928.
Inevitably, Francis’ critique can be read as a broadside against Pax Americana, the period of capitalism regulated by global institutions created largely by the United States. But even pillars of that system are shifting.
The World Bank, which long promoted economic growth as an end in itself, is increasingly focused on the distribution of gains. The newest global-trade agreements include efforts to increase protections for workers and the environment.
Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, said he believed Francis was making a nuanced point about capitalism, embodied by his coinage of a “social mortgage” on accumulated wealth, a debt to the society that made its accumulation possible. He said economic elites should embrace the need for change for moral and pragmatic reasons.
“I’m a believer in capitalism, but it comes in as many flavors as pie, and we have a choice about the kind of capitalist system that we have,” said Hanauer, now an outspoken proponent of redistributive-government policies like a higher minimum wage.
What remains unclear is whether Francis has a clear vision for a systemic alternative to the status quo that he and others criticize.
Francis acknowledged as much, conceding he had no new “recipe” to quickly change the world. Instead, he spoke about a “process of change” undertaken at the grass-roots level.