It’s been slightly more than a year since Pope Francis officially announced the Catholic Church’s crusade against capitalism. Has he made any progress?
2014 has been quite an eventful year for Pope Francis. After ascending to the papal throne in March 2013, His Holiness has regularly been making global headlines for his “less formal” ways and somewhat controversial views – he has chosen not to live within the Apostolic Palace, preferring the spartan confines of the Vatican guest house instead, and also recently declared that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real.
It’s his crusade against capitalism though that seems to be Pope Francis’s main objective.
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While the Catholic Church has generally been critical of capitalism (in 2011, the Vatican officially sided with anti-capitalist protestors), previous popes have steered away from outright condemning the main engine driving the global financial system – until Pope Francis came along. In his first apostolic exhortation released on 24 November 2013, the Pope took multiple pot-shots at capitalism and says that the world “can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market”.
You can browse the contents of the document here but if you’re short on time, essentially, Pope Francis believes that capitalism has morphed into a powerful insatiable greedy beast that feeds on the powerless. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new,” Pope Francis dictates in the apostolic document.
He also specifically set his iron sights on trickle-down economics, calling it a sham. Instead of “bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world”, he says the system has been abused and manipulated by a select few to make themselves filthy rich at the expense of many people. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
The Pope and His Army of 1.2 Billion
To understand the Pope’s distaste for capitalism and his preference for poverty, we need to understand his background. Before he became Pope Francis, he was born Jorge Maria Bergoglio. As a young boy, Bergoglio grew up in the Third World conditions of Buenos Aires. Evidently, he saw a lot of poverty around him, which played a part in shaping his worldview and his current attitudes towards the rich and the poor. When he gained the throne, Pope Francis wanted a poor church, and for the poor.
While there have been multiple attacks against capitalism, none have come from the moral and theological pulpit that Pope Francis stands on – most criticise the economic or financial aspects of the system. What’s even scarier is that none have carried the immense weight of a voice supposedly ordained by God. And his speeches arguably influence an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – and growing every day – around the world, which make up close to 20 percent of the global population.
A Message Subtly Influenced by Strategy
In a world increasingly beset by one financial crisis after another and with no end in sight, the rhetoric of Pope Francis can be quite seductive. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the African and Latin American continents are experiencing the biggest growths in Catholicism among the population – these two regions have been hit especially hard by the various financial crises that rocked the world in the past decade.
Many have argued that it wasn’t capitalism that failed but the incompetence of the government authorities within the countries. Their arguments definitely hold water. As the chart below shows, GDP growth and productivity accelerated in the past two centuries. In fact, we produced more economic output in the first decade of the 21st century than in the first 19 centuries combined. Countries such as China, India and Indonesia have also made giant strides in the past few decades. Check out the GDP chart below courtesy of the brilliant folks at The Economist.
Before you mistake Pope Francis as a tree-hugging religious Luddite, the leader of the Catholics is not against material progress. Rather, he is against fiscal and economic gains that are based on the exclusion and suffering of the powerless, and the brazen misuse of earth’s natural resources. The rising mercury on our thermometers and frequent temperamental weather patterns are some of the signs that we might have been working Gaia too hard and give credence to Pope Francis’s exhortations.
The 79-year-old is still travelling around the world actively spreading his anti-capitalism message. As recently as August 2014, he was in South Korea for a visit and told 45,000 gathered South Koreans to beware of “inhuman economic models which create new forms of poverty”. He also railed against the “spirit of unbridled competition”, explaining that it generates selfishness and strife. A few months ago, in November, Pope Francis once again warned attendees during a three-day conference on nutrition that the voracious greed of humans will destroy the world. “It is painful to see the struggle against hunger and malnutrition hindered by market priorities, the primacy of profit, which reduce foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation and financial speculation in particular,” said Pope Francis.
Earlier in the year, he slammed bankers and their hedging practices.
It’s clear that as long as he remains on the papal throne, Pope Francis will carry on attacking capitalism and its tenets, and will continue influencing the world to think about alternate forms of financial systems.
For Pope Francis, his choice is clear – he wants the world to embrace poverty as a way of life. A society in which the gap between the rich and the poor is as close as possible, if not eliminated, and where wealth is shared and not hoarded seems to be his ideal utopia. “Money must serve, not rule! I exhort you to a generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings,” were the Pope’s wishes on the topic.
If this sounds dangerously close to Marxism (not its failed communist compatriot), you’re not alone. The always controversial entertainer Rush Limbaugh decried the Pope’s anti-capitalist exhortations when it first came out.
And yet, one year on, as the world grapples with (yet another) oil crisis, Pope Francis’s words about the failure of capitalism once again rings true. In Singapore, we have more or less been sheltered by the raging financial tides. Having said that, the words of Pope Francis should encourage us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to take stock of our behaviour. We live in a world of consumption and the deluge of promotions, marketing messages, and advertisements encourages us to consume a lot more than we actually need. We have been incredibly lucky so far and perhaps it’s time for us to take a good look around us, to give to the poor, and to spread the joy and money to those who need it more.
Perhaps Pope Francis is asking us to rediscover what it means to be human.