By Nick Gier
Pope Francis’ recent encyclical about the dangers of human-caused climate change has received mixed reviews across the world. The pope criticizes conservative politicians for their “cowardice” in resisting the overwhelming evidence that God’s creation is “being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity.”
Republican presidential have been quick to criticize the Pope. Jeb Bush, who converted to the Catholic faith of his Mexican wife, responded that religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about [politics]. I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” Bush would probably not object to embracing the economics of Francois Quesnay, an 18th Century Catholic philosopher who promoted free markets.
Adam Smith, the founder of free market capitalism in the English world, did not write the “Wealth of Nations” until after his retirement as a professor of moral philosophy. Smith would agree with the pope’s critique of unbridled capitalism. Admiring the rich, and aspiring to be like them, while despising and neglecting the poor is, according to Smith, “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
The alliance of Christianity and capitalism has been a fairly recent phenomenon. Those Christians closest in time to Jesus himself held “all things in common,” and they chose to sell “their possessions and distribute them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). When Ananias and Sapphira held some of their property apart from the group, Ananias was struck dead by God (Acts 5:1-5). Early Christian communism was not a temporary affair, because 200 years later Church Father Tertullian wrote that “we hold all things in common except our wives.”
Greed of course was one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and usury was forbidden until the Protestant Reformation. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) declared that charging interest was “detestable to God and man.” The pope may have been provoked by the fact the Henry VIII of England had signed a law entitled “In Restraint of Usury,” which allowed the practice as long as the interest rate was not excessive.
At the turn of the 20th Century, millions of Christians in Europe were socialists, and many Americans followed the less ideological Social Gospel. In his book “One National Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America,” Kevin Kruse tells the story of pastor James W. Fifield, Jr., who was very successful in convincing Americans that being rich was a sign of virtue not vice. Turning Jesus’ teaching about wealth on its head, Fifield’s Christian libertarianism preserved the “dominance of the monied classes” and convinced the less wealthy to aspire to be just like them.
Conservative commentators are calling Pope Francis a Marxist or a Communist, but he insists that “Marxist ideology is wrong” for spiritual reasons. He does acknowledge that Marx and Jesus joined forces in their concern for economic inequality. Commentators are saying, quite correctly, that Francis is now supporting the theology of liberation, whose theologians claim that Jesus had a “preferential option for the poor.” Previous popes had removed these thinkers from their posts or otherwise silenced them. Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ immediate predecessor, condemned liberation theology as “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church.”
In a recent speech in Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for the brutal treatment of Latin America’s indigenous peoples, reversing Benedict’s position defending the Spanish Conquest in a 2007 visit. He also had strong words for unregulated capitalism: “This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, people find it intolerable. The earth itself–our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say–also finds it intolerable.”
Writing for The New Republic (March/April, 2015) Elizabeth Stoker argues that Francis sides with the early Church Fathers who “emphasized that private property rights obtain only after all human needs have been met, and that the excess of the wealthy truly belongs to the poor.”
I was surprised to learn that House Speaker John Boehner, himself a Catholic, has invited Pope Francis to address a joint session of Congress. In his written invitation Boehner states that Francis’ “Gospel of Joy” has touched the hearts of all humankind, and that his principles are in line with the “American Idea.” He joins Francis in a rejection of “crony capitalism,” but added his own dislike for the “ongoing centralization of political power in our federal government.”
I wonder, however, if the Republicans in Congress are actually ready to applaud Francis’ strong “preferential option for the poor.”
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.
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