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Italy, Spain

Pope Francis vs capitalism

Pope Francis’ criticisms of capitalism won’t bring the system crashing down but progressives in Spain and elsewhere should take note all the same, argues Vicenç Navarro*

When I was a child, my parents taught me that one thing are religions (advising me and my brothers to be respectful to believers, as part of the respect due to every human being ) and another thing is the Church (regardless of what type) that reproduces and manages religion for the benefit of the Church machine, of its hierarchy, which explains its constant identification with the power structures that the Church serves. Needless to say, my parents did not require us to respect those institutions. On the contrary, we should judge them by their subservience to those structures.

Throughout my life I have lived and visited many countries. And all I’ve ever seen is that the Church ( and most especially the Catholic Church) always serves power structures, with Spain being the most obvious case. The anticlericalism of the popular classes in Spain is, therefore, understandable and it a symptom of great frivolity to trivialize this anticlericalism as a feeling resulting from alien ideologies that are supposedly manipulating Spaniards. The working class needs no external stimulus to see and react to what they see.

This conservatism of the Catholic Church (one of the most conservative religions existing today) is partly understandable because of the economic benefit derived from it. The material basis of its ideology – as historical materialists would say –  are the material advantages gained from its subservience to power. But this same servility is what explains its unscientific position because it feels threatened by scientific knowledge.

It is no coincidence that it was not until 1992 (yes , 1992) that the Catholic Church apologized for persecuting Galileo in the seventeenth century, a man who dared to suggest that, contrary to what the Church said, it was the earth that revolved around the sun and not vice versa. In 2008, the Vatican even considered building a monument to Galileo, but decided to delay it because it was still too soon. In the Catholic Church, things move a tad slowly.

 What’s going on in the Vatican?

It is interesting , incidentally, that in the Vatican newspaper, a German historian, Georg Sans, wrote in 2009 an article praising Karl Marx for his introduction of the concept of alienation caused by capitalism. Georg Sans said “We have to ask whether Marx was right in his description of capitalism as a source of alienation … “. And the new Pope’s statements criticizing capitalism are creating a stir.

But you have to realize that the Catholic Church, specifically the Vatican, has always criticised the excesses of capitalism. From the encyclicals of Leo XIII (1878-1903) to John Paul II, the excesses of capitalism have been a constant, and in general more pronounced when other ideologies contrary to the Church (though not contrary to religion per se) such as Marxism, acquired significant traction in the labour and intellectual movements of the Western world.

But what is new is that the Vatican document released [In November] by Pope Francis on poverty and the Church, l seems to provide a glimpse of this Pope who wants to go a step further, limiting himself not just to attacking the excesses of capitalism, but capitalism itself. There are parts of the document that appear to be close to this position.

Francis writes : “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality.’

Francis adds: ‘Such an economy kills…. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation ( Francis indicates correctly that is intrinsic to capitalism … ) and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.

Another paragraph of Francis: ‘Some people (Francisco could have written most of the economic establishments , financial , political and media in Europe and America) 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 naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.’

I have not seen this passage quoted in any of the major Spanish media organisations, which systematically exclude voices that are critical of the dominant neoliberal ideas.

Hostility in the US

Needless to say, the response has been predictably hostile. In the U.S., a country with a deeply conservative media culture, numerous alarmist articles have been published arguing that “Marx is inspiring the Pope.” And Sarah Palin, the Tea Party leader, has expressed shock about  the Pope’s statements. More than one publisher has indicated that in the same way that Pope John Paul II helped the Soviet Union collapse, Pope Francis could contribute to the end of capitalism.

I think this picture is exaggerated. But it would be a mistake for  progressive forces to ignore the changes in the Vatican. I understand and share reservations and skepticism about the new Pope, skepticism spurred by cases so offensive and hurtful to democrats such as the Francis’ silence with respect to the tribute to the fallen in the Spanish Civil War.

But changes in the Church that dilute its overwhelming opposition to change and progress are valuable. And hence the enormous importance of Pope Francis’ position. It would be a big mistake not to be conscious of this, particularly in Spain, a country in which the Church has always played a negative role in defence of the established economic order and against the expansion of human rights.

*Professor of Public Policy . Pompeu Fabra University , and Professor of Public Policy. The Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published in the online journal SISTEMA , December 6, 2013, and subsequently in El Publico

Translated/edited by Revolting Europe

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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