While I was on an investment committee conference call the white smoke appeared, and shortly thereafter we learned that an Argentinian Cardinal named Jorge Bergoglio had been elected and had chosen for himself the name Pope Francis. I shared this thought with friends and colleagues on the call: The Pope will probably move the Church culturally to the right and more likely move it economically to the left.
In other words, the age old answer to the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?” is, “Yes.” But the answer to the question, “Is the Pope capitalist?” is, “Probably not.”
First, there’s the basic biographical particulars. He’s a Jesuit from South America, Argentina, in particular. Both facts on their own represent intellectual and ideological milieus which are decidedly unconducive to creating appreciation for the virtues of the market system. The movement known as ‘liberation theology,’ which splices Marxist economic theory onto Christian vocabulary, has strong roots among Jesuits and Argentinians. This is not to say that Cardinal Bergoglio was in any sense a liberation theologian, let alone a Marxist. He resisted that tendency, and was often criticized by the hard left. Then again, entering fully into liberation theology would have been a bridge too far, outside of the good graces of the Church entirely. But one can be a fierce critic of the market system and still remain within orthodox Roman Catholicism.
And that appears to be the case with Cardinal Bergoglio. Although he’s been criticized by the hard left, his biographer, Sergio Rubin (who no doubt is a very happy man right now), says that such complaints should be put in context: This kind of demonization is unfair, says Rubin, who wrote Bergoglio’s authorized biography, The Jesuit.
“Is Bergoglio a progressive — a liberation theologist even? No. He’s no third-world priest. Does he criticize the International Monetary Fund, and neoliberalism? Yes.
Neo-liberalism is a term used by the left to describe the modern school of economics which attempts to move the world towards free-markets (classical liberalism) and away from various forms of central control. But the Argentine political debate tends to take place between two statist camps: Peronism on the ‘right’ and Marxism on the left.
According to the Catholic Herald the former Cardinal’s ideological orientation is more from the anti-market right than from the anti-market left: “Where do his political sympathies lie? Certainly not on the Left. Those who know him best would consider him on the moderate Right, close to that strand of popular Peronism which is hostile to liberal capitalism. In the economic crisis of 2001-2002, when Argentina defaulted on its debt, people came out on to the streets and supermarkets were looted, Bergoglio was quick to denounce the neo-liberal banking system which had left Argentina with an unpayable debt.”
The liberal National Catholic Reporter says that “Bergoglio has supported the social justice ethos of Latin American Catholicism, including a robust defense of the poor…” and approvingly quotes him as saying, “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
The former Cardinal placed a strong emphasis on the distribution of wealth, not the creation of it. Spiritually he places emphasis on identification with the poor and the spiritual benefits of living a life of poverty. His decision to choose the name Francis squares well with that. Conflicting press reports claim that he either chose the name to honor Francis Xavier, the founder of his order, or to honor Saint Francis. I think probably the latter is true. Francis built a monastic movement on vows of poverty, recruiting men, many of them wealthy nobles, to imitate Jesus’ life without property. Resisting the Albigensian heresy which held that poverty is morally obligatory and that private property is immoral, the Franciscans stayed within orthodox Church teaching. Nevertheless, Francis has become a revered figure among the Catholic left partly because of his practice of voluntary poverty.
There is nothing remotely untoward in St. Francis’ simple lifestyle. There is nothing remotely untoward in Cardinal Bergoglio’s simple life, cooking his own food, living in a modest home, using public transit, spending time in the slums. In fact, both men are wonderfully admirable for this choice.
But let’s not ignore the fact that the poor profoundly benefit when the economy grows; more so, even than when the church offers them a soup kitchen to visit. Neither the rightist Peron, nor the current leftist administration of Argentina has done much good for the poor. A century ago it was one of the world’s more prosperous countries, but its repeated rejection of both classical liberalism and (later) neo-liberalism, caused its prosperity to plummet compared with much of the rest of the world.
It is no coincidence that Argentina’s score of 47 on the Index of Economic Freedom (placing it as a miserable 160th of the freest counties in the world) accompanies its terrible poverty. Even mild attempts at ‘austerity’ were criticized by the Cardinal and much of the Argentine Church, but when austerity was abandoned and the currency devalued and debt reneged upon, the lot of Argentina’s poor became even poorer.
In his Te Deum homily, Cardinal Bergoglio told the story of Zaccheus from the Gospels: “At the celebration of the Te Deum at the most recent national feast, last May 25th, there was a record audience for Cardinal Bergoglio´s homily. The cardinal asked the people of Argentina to do as Zacchaeus had done in the Gospel. Here was a sinister loan shark. But, taking account of his moral lowliness, he climbed up into a sycamore tree, to see Jesus and let himself be seen and converted by him.”
For a country that is in an almost constant state of conflict with investors who have loaned money to it, and who actually have the “nerve” to insist that the funds be repaid according to contract, the image of a ‘sinister loan shark’ is, well, sinister, and politically charged.
The problem is that this is not actually what the gospel says about him.
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.”
Not a lender, but a tax collector. Seems like Argentina with its appallingly low score of 52 out of 100 on controlling its government spending, and its craterously low 30 out of 100 on investment spending, might want to turn its attention away from the alleged loan sharks of the international investment community and the bogeyman of excessive neo-liberal deregulation, and towards its own Zacchaeus-like politicians in its bloated government sector.
The new pope seems like a wonderful man. Humble, simple, decent. But if he is going to help the Church do as much as it possibly can for the poor, he’d do well, not just to look to the wonderful St. Francis, who became poor to serve the poor, but also to John Paul the Great who, having lived under socialism in its most virulent form, embraced the market economy for its ability to liberate the poor.