by Nick Reynolds
One of the many curious developments since the election of Pope Francis, in a period remarkable for curious developments, has been the proliferation of concerned commentary emanating from the citadels of capital. The Pope, it seems, is confused. Or at the very least, he’s gotten some bad marketing advice. He has embarked on a poorly judged rebranding that is driving away some of the Church’s best customers. All of this talk about the poor, the dispossessed, the vulnerable -- this can make people uncomfortable. But if this was as far as it went, it wouldn’t be enough to really disquiet wealthy Catholics and conservative Church-admirers. John Paul II and Benedict XVI spoke out loudly and often about poverty and it hardly raised an uproar.
No, the real problem is the way in which Francis emphasizes the most radical elements of the gospel, the parts that are often smoothed over, the parts that might make Catholic capitalists think about the contradiction between the relentless pursuit of profit and the gospel's assertion that hoarding wealth shuts one out from the Kingdom of God.
No other movement within the Church has done more to make this contradiction unavoidable than the movement commonly known as liberation theology. A response to the overwhelming poverty of Catholic Latin America, where corrupt oligarchies financed by the United States habitually resorted to brutality at the merest hint of popular mobilization, liberation theology accented the subversive politics implicit in the gospel. Priests set out to organize communities of the downtrodden that united the gospel with a demand for social change. They took seriously not just the injunction that the Kingdom of God is coming, but that it can also be made present in the world right now. And the people best suited to making the Kingdom a living reality are the same people whom Jesus addressed: the oppressed and the marginalized.
This makes wealthy and powerful Christians very uncomfortable. For one thing, it suggests that in a world that in every other way bows to their wishes, something precious is out of their control. This is intolerable, and has been from the beginning. From the perspective of business, the Catholic Church is all well and good when it plays by the rules of the social game established long ago in the feudal Middle Ages: provide for the neediest, console the poor with thoughts of heaven, keep the poor in line with threats of hell. Otherwise shut up about exploitation. And, most importantly, don’t let anyone suggest that the gospel makes a case for revolutionary social change. Theologians who do make this claim are nothing but agitators looking to graft politics onto faith.
Steven Hayward’s Forbes piece is typical of this trend. It oozes such contempt for the Church’s concern for the poor that you might want to wipe off your screen after reading it. Hayward takes a dim view of the Pope’s rapprochement with Gustavo Gutierrez, author of A Theology of Liberation and an vocal proponent of a church oriented toward the poor. Hayward takes every chance he can to be as flippantly dismissive as possible. It’s grating and loutish, but it’s part of the plan: no reader should be able to even conceive of the possibility that there is a common space to be shared by Christian ethics and emancipatory politics. Hayward literally cannot conceive of a Church that shows a preferential concern for the poor. The very thought is laughable. In Hayward’s moral imagination, it is impossible for show a preference for the poor outside of the odd bit of paternal assistance in grabbing hold of a scrap of property.
One wonders how Christians living with this kind of doublethink can function. The gospel’s absolute insistence on the equality of all souls before God, the condemnation of wealth as an obstacle to salvation, the critique of power and its heartless violence, all of these themes appear again and again, from the Hebrew prophets down through Revelation. It takes great effort, or protective ignorance, to pretend that this message has nothing to do with Christianity.
One searches in vain for an argument in Hayward’s screed. But that’s not really what he’s out to provide. His only purpose is to reassure his Church-going readers that Francis is basically just a misguided CEO. Steve Moore’s Forbes articles on the Pope at least does the courtesy of acknowledging Francis’s point of view. This does not make his arguments any more convincing, but one at least gets the sense that he comes by his criticisms honestly. Not that it helps much. Moore is concerned that Francis’s identification of climate change as an especial threat to the poor and vulnerable is a capitulation to neo-paganism. Not only is the Green movement pagan, says Moore, but it’s a con -- in his universe, scientists see no reason to believe that human activity is warming the planet. Environmentalism, though, is only part of a greater evil. Moore calls on the Pope to denounce opponents of capitalism, since capitalism is self-evidently the only means of lifting the poor out of poverty. For Moore, hatred of capitalism is tantamount to the hatred of Christianity, since both are concerned with alleviating the plight of the poor.
This is the real crux of the matter. For people like Hayward and Moore, it is a matter of extreme importance that Christianity and capitalism be thought of as synonymous. Property and greed, and the exploitation that flows from them, must be given a holy sanction. Where the gospel makes this impossible, they insist that the gospel must yield, not them. When the rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to achieve salvation, Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor. The young man wrestles with this stark and uncompromising injunction, and we do not know what course he ultimately took. The story remains a constant challenge: how would any of us respond? Hayward and Moore would prefer that Jesus remind the young man of the importance of property to freedom.
A Church that concerns itself with the poor must raise the question of why they are poor in the first place. The comfortable and the cosseted insist that this question not be asked. Or, failing that, insist that it be dismissed as ludicrous. From their increasingly hyperventilating resistance comes a surprising reminder of the revolutionary power of the gospel.
Nick is a PhD candidate specializing in political theory at CUNY and holds a BA and an MA in history and Holocaust studies from Clark University.