Comrade Francis?

Joseph W.H. Lough

Every few days, followers of my blog or FB page have been dished up a cheeky “Go Popey Guy!” So, now that His Holiness has issued his first Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” am I still cheering? Well, yes. But 224 pages of rigorously argued theology is not quite the same thing as a pithy sound-bite.

Most FB and Google+ era will by now have read the sound-bite version of Pope Francis’ exhortation:

[S]ome people 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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. … One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! … 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. Consequently, 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, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

Few will therefore have realized that this sound-bite is prefaced — concealed in the bracketed “[S]” — by a telling “In this context, some . . .” And even fewer will perceive in “this context” the unmistakable stigmata of St Thomas. According to this stigmata, which, since the 13th century have served as signs not only of the Roman Church, but also of cultural conservativism, it is when we think and experience the world apart from the divine that both culturally and socially we falter.

I think that this belief is highly problematic. But before saying why, I want first to say a word about what I find good about it. This involves saying something about the world before capitalism. After the emergence of capitalism in 14th century western Europe, social relations will increasingly be mediated by the abstract value form of the commodity. This abstract, purely formal mediation will eventually give rise to a new abstract experience of human being; a being with natural endowments, rights, and obligations quite apart from any specific individual human being’s actual qualities. When we talk about human rights or civil rights, this abstract form of being sounds good. However, when we recognize that such talk conceals the actual condition and actual needs of individual human beings, this abstract form of being sounds less good.

Prior to the 14th century, by contrast, all human beings were by definition individual human beings. To each human being or class of human beings applied a highly specific set of private laws, privi- lege; thus, privilege, or private law. For example, an individual was felt to be a member of royalty because he or she had a genuinely different kind of blood — “blue” or royal blood — running through their veins. Peasants, by contrast, were peasants because they lacked this blood. Now, on the one hand, this meant that society prior to the 14th century, was highly hierarchical. On the other hand, no one ever felt that an individual was poor or hungry or naked or homeless because he or she had failed to make something of themselves. To the contrary, if a person was poor or hungry or naked or homeless, this pointed to a failure of society, which had an religious obligation to care for the poor, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, shelter the homeless, and welcome the orphan and widow into one’s home. Doing so would not change their nature. It would not transform them from a peasant into a nobleman (although it might transform them into a churchman or a church woman). Moreover, since each class or group enjoyed its own private laws — its own privileges — no matter how modest these private laws might be, no one, no matter their class, could take these privileges from another. For example, if I enjoyed traditional rights to the land or to the sea or gleaning rights on a noble’s lands, no court could take these privileges from me.

No one could take these privileges from me because, as St Thomas pointed out, these “natural” laws were not different in origin or authority either from Canon Law or from the divine laws recorded in Scripture. All law — Canon, Scriptural, and Natural (which included, for example, pagan Roman Law) — was thus deemed sacred and non-negotiable. Thus, the same principle that prevented Rome from replacing “sacred” Ptolemaic Astronomy with Copernicus’ or Galileo’s novelties also prevented and continues to prevent Rome from entertaining the flexibility of gender roles and identities. Law is law. All law is divine.

All of this changes with the emergence of capitalism in the 14th century because, unlike value in non-capitalist societies, which is unalterably attached to the objects or items or individuals that are deemed to be of value, abstract value under capitalism pulls free from its material forms of appearance. Henceforth, value has no necessary relationship to the objects or individuals to which it happens to bear a fleeting relationship. A person can be as poor as a pauper or as wealthy as a nobleman. Their outward form, their education, their skills, their power differ completely. And, yet, according to the principle of abstract value, which has come to mediate all social relations, they are both equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable [sic] rights.” And this rights apply irrespective of their actual material condition — these two individuals are “equal” before “the law.” But this law is no longer bears any relationship to the purely private laws that actually did take notice of the material and social conditions of the individuals to which they applied.

So, back to Pope Francis and to his exhortation. What is the “context” in which we are to understand this exhortation? It is simply this: the growing inequality we are experiencing is a consequence it turns out not of neoliberal economic policies or unregulated capitalism. Growing inequality is a consequence of our alienation from the divine and from our attempts to create a world independent from God’s saving love and redemption.

In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occuring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power (Ev. Gaud. §52).

His Holiness might have replaced “anonymous kinds of power” with “abstract form of value.” But he did not. And he did not because he believes that the problem with capitalist modernity is less the “capitalist” part than the “modernity” part. Yes, the sciences and technology have led to significant advances. But, so long as these advances are made without the divine restraints and guidance of true religion they do not and cannot resolve the problems that are most pressing. To the contrary, they instead become mere instruments of anonymous power that lead to the empowerment of private individuals and corporations that have rejected the restraining and guiding influence of the divine.

The object of the Pontiff’s critique then is not a social formation or an economic formation. Rather is it a cultural formation. What we need to do, according to this exhortation, is to bring all of our economic, scientific, and technological thinking and action once again into line with divine law.

So, what is wrong with that?

Let me simply say that I would have much less problem with this appeal to divine law were the Vatican not so quick to identify women priests, married priests, gay men, and lesbians as “innovations” and “violations” of natural law in precisely the same way that genetically modified foods or democracy are held to be “unnatural.” Were the divine law to which His Holiness wanted us to submit more clearly identified with the words and life of Jesus; or were this so-called “divine law” more clearly differentiated from social conventions, medical science, and gender roles that happened to be dominant among educated clergy in the High Middle Ages — then I might be able to endorse this law and its implied critique of capitalism. Our economic policies should take notice of the specific social and economic conditions of real human beings. Our economic policies should not be blind to the circumstances, whether of the needy of those who feed off them.

These, too, as His Holiness notes, contribute to the context of his exhortation:

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. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers” (§53).

We might want to debate His Holiness about what it might mean to have a “society” that includes everyone — gays, lesbians, married priests, women priests? Everyone?

No. Not everyone. Not yet. And, here, precisely I think is the tension implicit in the Pontiff’s exhortation. His Holiness is bound to a metaphysics —a substance metaphysics to be exact — whose social validity is grounded in a society that no longer exists, pre-capitalist central and western European medieval society. His critique of capitalism, therefore, like its nearest precursor, the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of Pius XI in I931, is wedded to an essentially conservative cultural agenda.

Now, in all fairness, the Pontiff’s critique of capitalism is refreshing from an Office that since Pope John’s passing has been largely silent on economic issues. And, when compared to Rush Limbaugh’s grasp of economics or, worse yet, the Catholic Randian Paul Ryan, the Pope displays a sensitivity and sophistication that puts Limbaugh and Ryan to shame. And I am definitely not going to stop cheering on FB for “Popey Guy!”

But Francis is not a comrade. He is as Marxist as any Pope has ever been. His rhetoric, when it does not come directly from Jesus’ mouth, is firmly anchored in the tradition. All that Rush Limbaugh’s accusation shows is that he is as unacquainted with Christianity as he is with Marxism. No surprise there. But, those of us who are familiar with both have an obligation to clearly differentiate the theoretical foundations of the Pope’s exhortation from the historical and social foundations both of Jesus’ teachings and of more rigorous critical theory.

Go Popey Guy! But go further.

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