The pope’s divisions

By Nicholas Wapshott
December 30, 2013

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 who headed now executive editor of Radio Free Europe/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 is the author of  Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

* CORRECTION: The correct name of the federally-funded network is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It was created to present uncensored news.

PHOTO (TOP): Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the general audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican, October 30, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Pope Francis waves as he arrives to conduct his weekly general audience at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, November 27, 2013. REUTERS/Max Ross

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Joseph Stalin   Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS


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“Challenge accepted. I would begin with generally accepted definitions of ‘wealth’.”

I did not ask you to define “wealth.” I asked you to define “legitimate wealth.” Wealth is easy to define: gold, stocks, real estate, land, jewels, etc. But there is a world of difference between someone who created a business through hard work and someone who was essentially given that opportunity via government favors.

“This would give rise to the legitimate question as to what percentage qualify as ‘intelligent life’.”

I am not a liberal — I hate them as much as I hate the Tea Party — but that comment paints you as someone who believes that certain races are more intelligent than others, i.e. a racist. Have you ever considered the possibility that the reason Americans have been so successful in the world is both hard work and luck, not only the former? In other words, if the Pilgrims had landed on a continent without oil, some of the best farmland in the world, great weather for farming, etc, the U.S. would be a very different place? No, I didn’t think so.

“Congress induced with land no one could or would buy to fund the building and administration of railroads that would connect Americans of every locale and class access to markets and reduce population congestion and competition in the East”

If you had bothered to research this, you would discover that the land was hardly unwanted. It was a stupendously generous gift to oligarchs — 6,400 acres per mile of railway. And the railroad barons understood very clearly that there would be mineral and oil deposits in the land they received. The consequences of that massive giveaway still resonate in the country today.

“I need not defend George Pullman, but presume what he did was legal at the time or he would have gone to jail”

Certainly, but you missed the point entirely. That’s the world of “no regulation,” the world that the Tea Party pines for. That’s what happens when oligarchs are allowed to do as they please. And the fact that he demanded that he be buried in a lead-lined coffin under tons of reinforced concrete proved that he knew his actions were anti-social.

“Had I been a corporate executive or shareholder of U.S. Steel in 1948, I would not have had knowledge of the local weather patterns near Pittsburgh to know in advance when a potentially lethal temperature inversion might occur.”

My point was that toxic clouds, whether in the air or water bodies, are a logical consequence of allowing companies to dump chemicals anywhere they please.

“You don’t like Bill Gates? Your problem. He has never wrongfully taken a dollar from my pocket or anyone I know.”

I do not dislike Gates; I dislike government favors given to large companies for no valid reason. The creation of large numbers of H-1B visas is corporate welfare. You constantly rail against welfare for humans, yet you approve of it for corporations. And you must never associate with software engineers and other technical workers, because hundreds of thousands of them have lost their livelihoods due to the abuse of H-1B visas by Microsoft and other companies. You are clearly ignorant of the abuse of H-1B visas.

I find it simply amazing that you defend the railroad barons receiving enormous tracts of land and Gates receiving the economic benefit of H-1B visas, yet you rail against the bailouts given to bankers, as all were government favors.

“If YOU deem it ‘selfish’ to be grateful to the capitalism that has been the economic engine of success of the country of my birth, which has provided every generation since WW II”

That’s right, every generation since WWII has done really well — until the turn of the century or so. You ignore the fact that the middle class was finally allowed to shine, which is the main reason our country became great. But we are now regressing back to the days of Pullman because people like you cannot see that corporate welfare is no different than governments stealing from the people.

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive


I’m not going to go back and repeat concepts I related clearly to you in the first place, i.e. wealth and the legitimacy or lack thereof. All I can say about your “take” on my comment about “intelligent life” as racist is that your mind is too immature to grasp the concept thus presented.

“…there is a world of difference between someone who created a business through hard work and someone who was essentially given that opportunity via government favors”. You don’t understand. To be given an opportunity is NOT the same as being given success.

America has been successful over time because of the results of capitalistic incentives over time. There are always more ways to fail than succeed. You conveniently ignore the fact that life was HARD and eased only a little for the “common man” up to WW II.

At the time the “grand bargain” was made to induce prosperous Americans with “legitimate wealth” to build what would become the American system of railways, there were few miles of track and the locomotive as a transportation system was in it’s infancy. The commercial value of your “…6,400 acres per mile of railway…” was all potential and no reality.

The value of oil at that time was next to nothing and the only “mineral deposits” of worth were gold, silver and coal physically present which the technology of the time could utilize. Value FOLLOWED development.

As in all times, the government went to those people you deride as oligarchs is that, as Willie Sutton said, “That’s where the money was”. The bargain was, “Invest your money and efforts in this enterprise which the country needs and you will prosper even more. There were many such “deals” back then, and more than a few lost everything they had and died penniless. Those that succeeded BECAME “railroad barons” along the way, but had to be competent and dedicated to their enterprise. You cherry-pick those you deem villains from history with 20-20 hindsight. What’s your point?

So George Pullman represented the world of “no regulation”? So did slavery. We don’t live in those worlds any more by any definition. They are gone forever. Once again, what’s your point? The many societies on this planet are STILL learning what resources, compounds and “wastes” are toxic when stored or disposed of improperly.

The “toxic clouds” of which you complain were of less threat to the local population than those posed by the cold of then unpredictable winter storms. Your apparent premise that individuals,, industry or societies should do nothing before until all ramifications are both clear and deemed proper is naive at best even if it has found a home in our EPA agency of today.

The H-1B visas are but one of many government functions that can be and perhaps are abused. We each pick and choose our “battles” if we are to be effective and heard. That’s not one of mine. The reason I “…rail against the bailouts given to bankers…” is that they made loans under government directives that were known unsound without public protest.

They then packaged these sub-standard instruments with others of like kind such that ordinary Americans and businesses as then “invested” in them would sooner or later “loose out”. Integrity is required in certain of life’s functioning, enshrined by practice and, occasionally law. They knowingly and intentionally acted in bad faith to the detriment of the “public interest” and are not being made to “pay the price”. Such only encourages more of such behavior in the future.

So you don’t think our country was great BEFORE the explosion of our middle class after WW II during economic conditions that will never return? To bring your thinking into reality would take more time and words than I can offer. Go back to school. You missed too much.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

definition of wealth – the amount of riches (property, assets, cash, etc.) that someone wealthier than me has accumulated.
legitimate wealth – are you wanting a moral or an ethical answer.
it is unreasonable to assume that all (or even a large percentage of the US or world is “intelligent” in the sense that they understand the politics, banking, legal systems, economy, social behavior of masses and the consequences. Thus, I do not necessarily believe that the “intelligent” statement as being racist.

Posted by ready2013 | Report as abusive

What total nonsense. The socialist, extreme left in this country, watching the rolling disaster of their prime piece of socialism in the U.S., Obamacare, is desperate for a savior. That they would try to find it in the new head of a Church they hate, despise, and would like to destroy is a real irony. What has Pope Francis said that is any different than what previous Pope’s have said? NOTHING! John Paul II frequently took the side of the poor and spoke about the dignity of, and solidarity with labor, and he also spoke against our commercial consumer society. When he would do that the democrats and the left would tout his support and some on the right would worry that he was too socialist in his approach. Of course, John Pau II had direct experience with Socialism. First with the National Socialist of Germany, the NAZI’s, and then with the Socialist/Communist Russian imposed Government in Poland. He had to live in a Socialist Paradise that claimed to be on the side of “The People” “Equality” and the Greater Good. Pope Francis is standing up for the Poor and the oppressed, and reminding us of our Christian Duty to be our brother’s keeper, but you can bet that he knows that socialism, atheism, and tyranny go hand in hand. Pope Francis is neither a Capitalist nor a Socialist, he is the Vicar of the Roman Catholic Church and the Shepard of its people, actually of all people whether Catholic or not. I wouldn’t count on him siding with the increasingly atheistic, authoritarian, and socialist democratic party of the United States, or any other socialist authoritarian movements. He may not have lived under that nightmare like John Paul II, but he knows better even as he champions the poor and reminds the wealthy of their obligations to succor the poor and downtrodden as Christians! You can bet he knows what socialism is truly about!

Posted by valwayne | Report as abusive

Jesus was NOT a socialist, you dimwits. He did NOT advocate forcible confiscation of anything.

Posted by Travlnmn41 | Report as abusive

“unbridled free market”

On the contrary, the Code of Federal Regulations has more than doubled in the last 30 years to 174,545 pages.

Posted by PolicyObserver | Report as abusive

One is tempted to think Nicholas has finally recognized that “government action” has given us more Stalins than Gandhis and he has therefore looking to faith as the answer. That would explain the sudden interest in things Catholic manifested in this column.

Or perhaps it is simply a Wapshott dogma that God dislikes “Teaparty Republicans” and the Pope doesn’t watch Duck Dynasty. Therefore God and the Pope must support Mayor Deblasio. Or something else…

The Roman Catholic Church is trying to survive in post-Christian, socialist Europe. The peculiar history of Christianity in Europe is that churches have been servants of the rich, the powerful and often the evil. Just watch Tosca. Pope Francis has a brand to rehabilitate or Christendom will die in Europe and perhaps in North America. The Pope’s spin-doctors may be smarter or more sincere than Jay Carney, but the operation is the same. Perhaps God will grant the Pope the miracle he has, so far, denied this administration.

Or perhaps the Papacy itself is caught in an irreconcilable paradox. Only by adopting the narrative of your average Brussels functionary can God be made attractive to the media and political elites of Europe. But such a strategy also robs the Roman Catholic Church of its unique identity. It becomes just another NGO. It is still bigger and richer than Planned Parenthood or PETA or UNESCO, but if the Pope joins them, he will become like them.

Posted by lordbaltimore | Report as abusive

It must be a source of discouragement on the Left that so many voices here have something to say about Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis.

The thoughtful Progressive will note nobody is talking about Al Gore. Nobody is fainting anymore when President Obama drops a platitude reflecting well on Obama and all his works. Earth has not gotten a whole lot warmer. The rising seas are not yet lapping at my doorstep. Nobody remembers Occupy Wall Street but surprising numbers of people wonder what the Vicar of Christ has to say about justice, work and wealth.

How odd and unfair to the secular, materialist Left. They will tell you they are smarter than you are in ways designed not to offend you. They will assure discretely assure you they have thrown-off the fables and myths that make lesser people kneel in church. They want a Pope who shares their views secretly. Indeed, the idea that Pope Francis might secretly sympathize is more exciting. It flatters an elite that adores “nuance”– which is 21st Century for “lying”. A plain, open statement by the Pope that faith is okay–if you like that sort of thing–but politics is where it’s at would be too obvious.

On January 22, in the winter cold, over a hundred thousand people will gather in Washington for a day of protest against abortion in America. Most of them will be Catholic laypeople, joined by people of other denominations. (Perhaps a few Tea Party Republicans will take a break from poisoning the wells and stop-by.)

The real question for Nicholas is why these people still come in their thousands to support a supposedly hopeless, backward cause. We have been told by our Supreme Court that abortion is okay. We are lectured and hectored by media personalities that abortion is “women’s health” and nothing more. Why do these people still think and feel differently after all these years?

It is a question for Reuters and perhaps for the Pope.

Posted by lordbaltimore | Report as abusive