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In Fiery Speeches, Francis Excoriates Global Capitalism

The New York Times logo The New York Times 7/11/2015 By JIM YARDLEY and BINYAMIN APPELBAUM
Pope Francis with children on Friday in Luque, Paraguay, the final leg of his Latin America trip. © Andres Stapff/Reuters Pope Francis with children on Friday in Luque, Paraguay, the final leg of his Latin America trip.

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — His speeches can blend biblical fury with apocalyptic doom. Pope Francis does not just criticize the excesses of global capitalism. He compares them to the “dung of the devil.” He does not simply argue that systemic “greed for money” is a bad thing. He calls it a “subtle dictatorship” that “condemns and enslaves men and women.”

Having returned to his native Latin America, Francis has renewed his left-leaning critiques on the inequalities of capitalism, describing it as an underlying cause of global injustice, and a prime cause of climate change. Francis escalated that line last week when he made a historic apology for the crimes of the Roman Catholic Church during the period of Spanish colonialism — even as he called for a global movement against a “new colonialism” rooted in an inequitable economic order.

The Argentine pope seemed to be asking for a social revolution.

“This is not theology as usual; this is him shouting from the mountaintop,” said Stephen F. Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic studies at Catholic University of America in Washington.

The last pope who so boldly placed himself at the center of the global moment was John Paul II, who during the 1980s pushed the church to confront what many saw as the challenge of that era, communism. John Paul II’s anti-Communist messaging dovetailed with the agenda of political conservatives eager for a tougher line against the Soviets and, in turn, aligned part of the church hierarchy with the political right.

Francis has defined the economic challenge of this era as the failure of global capitalism to create fairness, equity and dignified livelihoods for the poor — a social and religious agenda that coincides with a resurgence of the leftist thinking marginalized in the days of John Paul II. Francis’ increasingly sharp critique comes as much of humanity has never been so wealthy or well fed — yet rising inequality and repeated financial crises have unsettled voters, policy makers and economists.

Left-wing populism is surging in countries immersed in economic turmoil, such as Spain, and, most notably, Greece. But even in the United States, where the economy has rebounded, widespread concern about inequality and corporate power are propelling the rise of liberals like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who, in turn, have pushed the Democratic Party presidential front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to the left.

Even some free-market champions are now reassessing the shortcomings of unfettered capitalism. George Soros, who made billions in the markets, and then spent a good part of it promoting the spread of free markets in Eastern Europe, now argues that the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

“I think the pope is singing to the music that’s already in the air,” said Robert A. Johnson, executive director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, which was financed with $50 million from Mr. Soros. “And that’s a good thing. That’s what artists do, and I think the pope is sensitive to the lack of legitimacy of the system.”

Many Catholic scholars would argue that Francis is merely continuing a line of Catholic social teaching that has existed for more than a century and was embraced even by his two conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Leo XIII first called for economic justice on behalf of workers in 1891, with his encyclical “Rerum Novarum” — or, “On Condition of Labor.”

Mr. Schneck, of Catholic University, said it was as if Francis were saying, “We’ve been talking about these things for more than one hundred years, and nobody is listening.”

Francis has such a strong sense of urgency “because he has been on the front lines with real people, not just numbers and abstract ideas,” Mr. Schneck said. “That real-life experience of working with the most marginalized in Argentina has been the source of his inspiration as pontiff.”

Francis made his speech on Wednesday night, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, before nearly 2,000 social advocates, farmers, trash workers and neighborhood activists. Even as he meets regularly with heads of state, Francis has often said that change must come from the grass roots, whether from poor people or the community organizers who work with them. To Francis, the poor have earned knowledge that is useful and redeeming, even as a “throwaway culture” tosses them aside. He sees them as being at the front edge of economic and environmental crises around the world.

In Bolivia, Francis praised cooperatives and other localized organizations that he said provide productive economies for the poor. “How different this is than the situation that results when those left behind by the formal market are exploited like slaves!” he said on Wednesday night.

It is this Old Testament-like rhetoric that some finding jarring, perhaps especially so in the United States, where Francis will visit in September. His environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” released last month, drew loud criticism from some American conservatives and from others who found his language deeply pessimistic. His right-leaning critics also argued that he was overreaching and straying dangerously beyond religion — while condemning capitalism with too broad a brush.

“I wish Francis would focus on positives, on how a free-market economy guided by an ethical framework, and the rule of law, can be a part of the solution for the poor — rather than just jumping from the reality of people’s misery to the analysis that a market economy is the problem,” said the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which advocates free-market economics.

Francis’ sharpest critics have accused him of being a Marxist or a Latin American Communist, even as he opposed communism during his time in Argentina. His tour last week of Latin America began in Ecuador and Bolivia, two countries with far-left governments. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, who wore a Che Guevara patch on his jacket during Francis’ speech, claimed the pope as a kindred spirit — even as Francis seemed startled and caught off guard when Mr. Morales gave him a wooden crucifix shaped like a hammer and sickle as a gift.

Francis’ primary agenda last week was to begin renewing Catholicism in Latin America and reposition it as the church of the poor. His apology for the church’s complicity in the colonialist era received an immediate roar from the crowd. In various parts of Latin America, the association between the church and economic power elites remains intact. In Chile, a socially conservative country, some members of the country’s corporate elite are also members of Opus Dei, the traditionalist Catholic organization founded in Spain in 1928.

Inevitably, Francis’ critique can be read as a broadside against Pax Americana, the period of capitalism regulated by global institutions created largely by the United States. But even pillars of that system are shifting. The World Bank, which long promoted economic growth as an end in itself, is now increasingly focused on the distribution of gains, after the Arab Spring revolts in some countries that the bank had held up as models. The latest generation of international trade agreements includes efforts to increase protections for workers and the environment.

The French economist Thomas Piketty argued last year in a surprising best-seller, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” that rising wealth inequality was a natural result of free-market policies, a direct challenge to the conventional view that economic inequalities shrink over time. The controversial implication drawn by Mr. Piketty is that governments should raise taxes on the wealthy.

Mr. Piketty roiled the debate among mainstream economists, yet Francis’ critique is more unnerving to some because he is not reframing inequality and poverty around a new economic theory but instead defining it in moral terms. “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy,” he said on Wednesday. “It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: It is a commandment.”

Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, said that he saw Francis as making a nuanced point about capitalism, embodied by his coinage of a “social mortgage” on accumulated wealth — a debt to the society that made its accumulation possible. Mr. Hanauer said that economic elites should embrace the need for reforms both for moral and pragmatic reasons.

“I’m a believer in capitalism but it comes in as many flavors as pie, and we have a choice about the kind of capitalist system that we have,” said Mr. Hanauer, now an outspoken proponent of redistributive government policies like a higher minimum wage.

Yet what remains unclear is whether Francis has a clear vision for a systemic alternative to the status quo that he and others criticize. “All these critiques point toward the incoherence of the simple idea of free market economics, but they don’t prescribe a remedy,” said Mr. Johnson, of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Francis acknowledged as much, conceding on Wednesday that he had no new “recipe” to quickly change the world. Instead, he spoke about a “process of change” undertaken at the grass-roots level.

“What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with the hearts full of hopes and dreams but without any real solution for my problems?” he asked. “A lot! They can do a lot.

“You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.”

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