The pope addresses Congress Thursday, and conservatives are fearing the worst. Their belief systems can tolerate a lot — laissez-faire economics, xenophobia — but Pope Francis’s emphasis on the Roman Catholic Church’s historic antipathy to capitalism has them in a dither.
The Wall Street Journal laments his overt embrace of the “progressive political agenda of income redistribution.” My Post colleague George F. Will writes that, “Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”
It’s not clear, however, whether the Journal and Will’s argument is with the pope or with the Christianity of the saint whose name he took, or even more fundamentally, with the Nazareth carpenter whom Christians believe was the son of God.
Suppose, for instance, that the pope elects, in his address to Congress, to repeat one of that carpenter’s most famous quotes: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Based on past performance, can we expect some Republican congressman to leap to his feet and shout, “You lie,” or Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to shake his head in dissent? Both occurrences greeted addresses to Congress by President Obama, speeches that were nowhere remotely as inflammatory as those in a recent papal encyclical, much less the Sermon on the Mount.
In that encyclical, Francis wrote that “[s]aving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises.”
In place of our current system, Francis has recommended giving workers more power — in particular, promoting worker-owned and -run cooperatives. Speaking to delegates from Italian cooperatives, he extolled “an authentic, true cooperative . . . where capital does not have command over men, but men over capital.” As Nathan Schneider has pointed out in an article in the Nation, the church has a rich history of supporting worker co-ops, including the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, which is the world’s largest co-op and which was founded by a priest. The U.S. Conference of Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development is a major funder of worker co-ops.
On the U.S. political spectrum, this kind of advocacy for worker control plunks you down firmly on the left: Indeed, the primary author of legislation that would promote worker co-ops if Congress ever sought fit to pass it is one Bernie Sanders. But Francis’s critiques of capitalism aren’t peculiar to the left wing of the church. On the contrary, they echo the encyclicals of his predecessor popes — Benedict, John Paul II, all the way back to Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s — in favor of unions and against the sway that capital holds over nations and peoples.
Where Francis has departed from his predecessors is that he has moved from talking the talk to walking the walk. The simplicity of his lifestyle, his emphasis on spending time among the poor and giving workers more control of economies where the deck, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has said, is stacked against them, are all radical departures from past papal practice. So, too, is the tolerance he has shown to gays, lesbians and divorcees — a tolerance that has roused the ire of church conservatives, for whom intolerance to these and kindred groups seems to express the essence of their Catholicism.
These conservatives lament that Francis has de-emphasized the church’s traditional fear and loathing of women and sex. How a church governed by male celibates should have come to view its areas of core competency as gender relations and reproduction is a good question. By returning to the kind of issues that St. Francis and the Nazarene focused on — stewardship of the Earth, championing of the have-nots — Francis has been a great disappointment to those Catholics nostalgic for the spirit, if not the letter, of the Inquisition.
A pope infused by the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and Jesus poses a threat to the current economic order. Conservatives are right to fear and despise him, as they would be right to fear and despise his role models. The final scene of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Saint Joan” places Joan of Arc in a dream sequence in which all her persecutors, once she’s safely dead and canonized, praise her and acknowledge her sainthood. When she asks them if she should return to Earth and live again, however, they answer with fear, loathing and a resounding “no.” That, in essence, is the conservatives’ response to Pope Francis, and to the spirit and faith he embodies.