Populist Pope Attracts All the Right Critics

Here is Today’s Pop Quiz: Who Said the Following?

“Some people continue to defend 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. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in those wielding economic power and the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

a.) Sen. Bernie Sanders
b.) Karl Marx
c.) Archbishop Desmond Tutu
d.) Pope Francis
e.) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Each answer is plausible but Pope Francis penned these words. He’s also written that “In this system which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.”

According to the pope we live under the unilateral, relentless “dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” In this “new tyranny” those in power “feed upon the powerless” and human beings are discarded as the “leftovers.” Further, the pontiff’s millions of Twitter followers found this recent entry: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centered mindset bent on profit at any cost.”

Not surprisingly, portions (esp. paragraphs 52-60) of the pope’s mission statement Evangelli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) prompted swift denunciations, ranging from Fox Business News and Forbes magazine to Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. The latter bashed the pope’s statements as “pure Marxism,” adding that Francis “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Fox’s Stuart Varney accused the pope of embracing “Neo-socialism,” while Tea Party advocate Jonathan Moseley excoriated the Bishop of Rome for not grasping the obvious truth that “Jesus was a capitalist.” (Recall that Gospel of Prosperity evangelist Joel Osteen preaches that Jesus wants us to own a yacht and drive a Rolls Royce).

These intemperate reactions suggest that some defenders of the capitalist faith feel threatened by the pope’s message. Then again, one suspects many of these folks would also have despised and attempted to silence Jesus’ radical teachings. Clearly, Francis is attracting the right critics, including resistance from reactionary bishops who are scrambling to rejigger or ignore the pontiff’s words. They may find it especially challenging to parse the pope’s words when he cites the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ followed by “today we also have to say ‘thou shall not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills…”

The fact that I’m neither Catholic nor even a believer has no bearing on my reaction. I confess to liking and respecting much of what I’ve heard from this pope, including his exhortation that all citizens should be guaranteed “dignified work, education and health care.” His position on the role of women remains a hugely disappointing and legal accountability for sexually abusive clergy must be a priority. And yet how restorative to hear a pope proclaim that the church should focus on economic injustice rather than its interminable “obsession” with abortion, gays, and birth control. When asked about homosexuality, Francis replied “Who Am I to Judge?”

I’m hardly the first to detect a Jesus-like, radical substance in this Argentine Jesuit’s public utterances. It’s early, but Francis strikes me as a subversive agitator in the best sense of afflicting the (very) comfortable. It’s not unthinkable that this pope’s bold engagement is heightening political consciousness about a socioeconomic system that he decries as “unjust at its root.” If that’s the case, I can only respond “Amen!”

Gary Olson is professor and chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2013). He can be reached at: olson@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.