COLUMN-The pope's divisions

by Reuters
Monday, 30 December 2013 16:05 GMT

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Nicholas Wapshott

Dec 30 (Reuters) - The political roundups of 2013 make little mention of perhaps the most important event to alter the political landscape in the last 12 months. It was not the incompetence of the Obamacare rollout - though that will resonate beyond the November midterms. Nor was it House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) finally snapping at the Tea Party hounds who have been nipping at his heels.

No, it was the March 13 election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a cardinal from Argentina, as pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is significant the new pope chose as his name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, the 12th century saint who shunned comfort and wealth, and devoted his life to helping the poor and treating animals humanely. Pope Francis said he was inspired by a Brazilian colleague, who whispered to him, "Don't forget the poor." Since then he has rarely missed the chance to reprimand the rich and embrace the poor, as shown by his refusal to adopt the palatial papal lifestyle in favor of more modest accommodation.

The conservative saint Margaret Thatcher also embraced Francis of Assisi on being elected British prime minister in 1979. On the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, she quoted the verse attributed to St. Francis (though not written by him), "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony."

Thatcher, incapable of irony, plainly meant what she said. Though few who lived through her reign would recognize the spirit of reconciliation in her divisive policies.

Thatcher has often been bracketed with the Polish Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan as architects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The most pious act of adulation to this conservative trinity was "The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three who Changed the World" by John O'Sullivan, a former Thatcher speechwriter now executive editor of Radio Liberty, the federally-funded propaganda network.

Those who credit Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II alone with defeating communism do not give enough credit to the real heroes of the Soviet Union, whose constant criticism of communism eventually bore fruit. They were the intellectuals who risked their lives and their freedom. Leaders like Alexander Dubcek of Czechoslovakia, who invited a Russian tank invasion by daring to suggest "Socialism with a human face," and above all the courageous trade union leader Lech Walesa in Gdansk, Poland, whose defiance of the Soviet gerontocracy hastened the collapse of Marxism-Leninism.

John Paul II provided strong moral support for Walesa's Polish uprising. The pope's actions confirmed to many conservatives that the Catholic Church was a trusted ally in battling socialism and countering the 1960s permissive revolution in personal morality. Conservatives have also claimed Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (the German pope) as their own.

It was not always thus. In the reign of Pope John XXIII, Democrats took comfort from the popular pontiff, who came from Lombardy peasant stock, modernized Catholic doctrine through Vatican II and befriended the United States' first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Indeed, in Catholic homes, Italian restaurants and Irish bars today you can still see Pope John's portrait side by side with Kennedy.

The election of Francis, however, has called into question the nearly 50-year-long alliance between the papacy and conservatives. Francis has been so outspoken about the need to express compassion for those less fortunate that some have come to ask, Is the pope a socialist?

Of course, the pope is nothing of the sort. But his clear call for a reappraisal of capitalism and the relentless barren materialism that the market system promulgates, has left conservatives wondering whose side he is on.

Here is Francis on "the new idolatry of money": "The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation."

As for Francis's view of Tea Party conservatives: "They reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. 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 become the only rule."

If anyone doubt his clarity, Francis said: "I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: 'Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood.'"

Blimey! Perhaps Francis is a socialist after all.

You don't have to be a theologian to understand what the pope is saying. Those who have commoditized the whole of human life, and insist that elected governments do nothing to rectify the capitalist system's inequalities, are evil. Those conservative sages who have relied on the Vatican to condone their indifference to those who fall through the cracks of the market are understandably put out by losing the support of such a valuable and powerful institution.

One aspect of today's U.S. conservatism is its lack of sympathy toward economic migrants. Francis's first trip outside the Vatican, however, was to comfort survivors of a boatload of North African illegal immigrants that overturned en route to Italy.

"In this world of globalization," Francis declared, "we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn't concern us, it's none of our business."

In his first Christmas message last week, Francis urged non-believers to join him in bringing peace to the world. He urged diplomacy rather than direct military action to settle longstanding differences. Ignoring the "clash of cultures," he urged peace between Muslims on both sides in Syria and Iraq.

These are not stray remarks. Francis is urging Christ's message - treat your neighbors as you would like to be treated.

But does it matter what the pope thinks? The Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin was once asked to soften his persecution of Christians, to persuade Pope Pius XII to abandon his indifference toward Nazism. "Oho!" said Stalin. "The pope! How many divisions has he got?"

The answer is: a great many. There are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, 40 percent of whom live in Latin America and are hugely influential among Latinos living in the United States. There are 78.2 million Catholics here and many are relatively new immigrants. In the last 50 years the number of American Catholics has increased by 60 percent.

As long as conservatives oppose immigration reform, as long as they tacitly condone racism, as long as they devote themselves to opposing government intervention to rectify the miseries caused by the unbridled free market, as long as they insist there is nothing wrong with vast differences in wealth and income, Francis will oppose them. And it could be that not many Catholics will vote for them.

Francis may not be a true socialist, but it appears he has unequivocally taken sides. (Nicholas Wapshott)

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