Are some conservative Catholics starting to freak out over the new pope’s knocks against capitalism?
Michael Sean Winters SAYS Pope Francis is causing quite a stir with his devotion to the plight of the poor:
When Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement, most evaluations of his pontificate prominently featured the adjective “conservative.” Yet, this same pope, as well as his predecessors, had voiced deep reservations about modern capitalism. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Benedict reiterated the Church’s long-standing support for unions, for a robust social welfare state, and for environmental action to stem global climate change. Still, these “progressive” stances were often outweighed in the public’s eye by Benedict’s undoubted, and often more visible, commitment to baroque liturgies, traditional moral norms, and a vision of the Church that struck many as defensive and closing in on itself. The election of Pope Francis and his first 100 days in office have caused everyone from full-time Vaticanologists to the average Catholic in the pew to recognize a shift, a change of emphasis and style, and a laser-like focus on the poor from the new pope.
The first decision a new pope makes is to choose a name, and in choosing to be called Francis, the new pope indicated that he wished to associate himself with the saint who is most identified with caring for the poor. In the days and weeks that followed, Pope Francis made it clear that a concern for the poor would be at the center of his papacy. He said he wanted “a Church that is poor and for the poor.” Upon first visiting the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis reportedly commented that “three hundred people could live here,” and indicated he would not be among them, choosing to reside in a two-room suite in a nearby hotel used by visitors to the Vatican. He visited a soup kitchen where he denounced “savage capitalism.” His ecclesiastical vestments are modest and he still wears the worn black shoes he brought with him from Buenos Aires.
Needless to say, there are not many U.S. Catholic bishops who speak so forcefully in denouncing the evils of the modern market economy. Key to understanding Pope Francis and his views on the economy is the fact he is not a U.S. bishop, nor a European, though he was born to Italian parents. He is the first pontiff from the global South. And while the theological content of what he says is in broad continuity with his predecessors, it is the way he speaks bluntly about the actual economy, not just some theoretical understanding of economics, that stands out as unique. “His language is striking—showing a very clear moral evaluation of the actual system we live in,” says Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of theology at St. John’s University in New York. “Referring to the ‘slave-labor’ in Bangladesh, the ‘cult of money,’ the ‘facelessness’ of economic systems, the global economic system is not abstract or theoretical. Pope Francis is trying to wake us up from complacency about how we look at the economy and what we ignore.”
The new pope’s critique of the current world economy has left conservative Catholic commentators in something of a bind. For years, they have denounced “cafeteria Catholics” on the left, those who differ with the Church on issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion rights. Now, it is these conservatives who need to either change their public policy positions or stand in the cafeteria line. “Before, Catholic economic conservatives like George Weigel and Robert Sirico could pretend that Vatican apparatchiks were smuggling traditional anti-capitalist language into papal pronouncements,” says Trinity College’s Mark Silk, who serves on the editorial board of Religion & Politics. “But no one can doubt that this language comes straight from Pope Francis’ heart. That’s what’s freaking the conservatives out.”