June 19, 2013
Rebranding the faith
Jorge Bergoglio, the new CEO of Catholicism Inc., lost no time in letting his subordinates know that, as far as he is concerned, the time has come for them to roll up their sleeves and do some serious work. Unlike his immediate predecessor Joseph Ratzinger, a cerebral Bavarian who while pope was a bit too fond of quoting Byzantine scholars, Bergoglio, who now calls himself Francis, is determined to modernize the old firm. He thinks it should move closer to the people, especially the poor, instead of retreating into the lofty empyrean where Ratzinger felt at home and where he could cultivate his mustard seeds and mull over the theological and philosophical problems he found so fascinating.
Francis’ down-to-earth approach to his job has already won him well-nigh universal applause. Multimillionaires and their bejewelled ladies, presidents, elected or otherwise, bonus-happy bankers and journalists accustomed to chronicling the doings of shifty politicians, agree that he is a wonderful man, a man so phenomenally austere that he is not afraid to use public transport and, it is said, even cooked his own meals in a spartanly furnished flat. If that is true, those who earn a living in the Vatican kitchens or work as flunkeys for princes of the Church must be feeling very worried. The simple life favoured by Francis may be splendid in theory, but if too many people decide to follow his example and give up luxuries, unemployment will soon skyrocket. Once upon a time, when the Roman Catholic Church was rather more powerful than it is today, prelates spent much of their time hobnobbing with monarchs and enjoying the pleasures available to the rich, but after the industrial revolution, when capitalism, accompanied by liberal notions about the importance of a free market in ideas, got into full swing, they began to change tack. After centuries of praising the poor for being poor and stressing the spiritual advantages of their condition, they began to treat them as victims of their liberal enemies’ materialistic greed.
When, before the paedophilia scandals began to proliferate, Communism broke down and democratic socialists found themselves obliged to rein in spending, that strategy seemed about to pay handsome dividends to “socially conscious” bishops who, unlike politicians, could take up the cudgels on behalf of the poor without anyone demanding that they tell us what, precisely, should be done to better their lot. Even forcing the wealthy to disgorge their riches would have unfortunate economic consequences; as for making middle-class folk pay far higher taxes, in most democratic countries that is not a popular option.
Francis says he wants the Church he now heads to be poor and stand up for the poor, but what does he mean? If his words are to be taken literally, he will start flogging off the treasures that have been accumulated in the course of two millennia to fund charitable programmes. Would that help? For a while, perhaps, but before very long most of the money would find its way into the bank accounts of those who already have more than enough to live on. That is what happens to the billions of dollars prosperous nations dole out as foreign aid, which, as has often been remarked, amounts to poor people in rich countries sending huge sums of money to rich people in poor ones.
With the possible exception of a few anchorites, everybody thinks poverty is bad and wants to “fight” it. However, in progressive circles it has long been fashionable to regard poverty as an aberration, something that must have been brought about by wicked individuals who, for their own unspeakable purposes, insist on depriving honest people of what should be theirs by right. Once this is accepted, it seems logical to attribute widespread poverty to capitalism or, at the very least, to “neoliberalism”, and reach the conclusion that the best way to abolish it would be to replace capitalism by something kinder and more generous.
Unfortunately for the many clerics and leftists who share this point of view, all the alternatives that have been tried have turned out to be far worse. Seeing that so much of the wealth in the world has been generated by capitalism, it is not surprising that attempts to replace it with something else have always ended in tragedy, but that minor inconvenience has never impressed zealots determined to redesign the world in accordance with their own specifications.
Why are so many Latin Americans, among them over ten million Argentines, still desperately poor? In large measure, because the local elites have patriotically refused to learn from their counterparts in countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia and, of course, the United States. By refusing on principle to do what they have done, they in effect sided with poverty. Argentina and Venezuela should be among the richest countries on the face of the planet, but thank to the efforts of their political and economic establishments, they are anything but. Does Francis think that the delight Argentina’s populist elite takes in playing the victim game and blaming his homeland’s dire situation on outsiders, whether imperialistic powers like the UK and the US, or on nasty foreign phenomena such as liberal capitalism, may have something to do with the country’s inability to prosper and build a decent welfare system? If his rhetoric is anything to go by, he does not.