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Apocalyptic And Utopian: On Pope Francis’ Bolivian Manifesto

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James V. Schall, S.J., The Catholic World Report

This papal address in Bolivia contains his vision of the world and what is wrong with it. He is telling us—not asking our opinions. He has already made his conclusions. It is what I would call a very apocalyptic and utopian address. It describes both how terrible things are and how idyllic they can be. There is little room for a common sense middle, for a view that the world might just go on its own way as it has for millennia. It was closer to Joachim of Fiora than to Augustine of Hippo.

Pope Francis speaks at the second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As far as I could judge, we find, in this particular address, almost no trace of traditional Christian concerns with personal virtue, salvation, sin, sacrifice, long-suffering, repentance, eternal life, or an abiding vale of tears. Sins and evils are transformed into social or ecological issues that require political and structural remedies. Problems are at the same time said to be “global” and “individual”. Pope Francis urges individual action and global refashioning. The evil is caused by capitalism in the form of money and greed. The free market capitalism, severely limited by the state, that actually exists has little hearing. Time cited a comment that such moderate capitalism was the only way that could really achieve what the Pope wanted for the poor before him. Thus the central questions that the Pope brings up in this address is: “What works? What does not work for the end envisioned?” This end that Pope Francis seems to envision is nothing less than a world transformation of mankind to save itself, soon—indeed, now!

Very little is said about actual governments, their make up, or their effects. Almost never do we hear of the modern state, with its bureaucratic hand in almost everything, with its theoretic basis in voluntarism, to be an independent and central problem. For many, it is the state itself that causes most of the dangerous problems that the Pope is worried about. Pope Francis has a theory of tyranny, but not, as in the classic writers, a theory of the tyranny of the state, including the democratic state, as such.

There are descriptions of terrible wars with endless refugees, but barely a word about who might be causing those wars or what can be done about such causes and with what means. The conflicts and turmoil that arise from Islam, the most visible ones we see, are not economic or political in origin. The real problem is evidently not Islam but money, No doubt, with the enormous borrowings and debt of almost all nations, including the United States with its amazing deficit, international finance is a serious issue. These debts, however, have more to do with political demands of “rights” in democratic and socialist states than they do with corporations or banking systems that are themselves either functions of state polity or limited by them.

This failure to see the modern state itself as a central problem in achieving the ends that concern the Pope may well be a heritage of Latin America’s mercantilist past when Spain ran every Latin country from Madrid. I read a biography recently of Simon Bolivar which suggested that the Latin American conception of the state sees it as the major or even sole organ for rule and change. A major strand of political rhetoric in the United States, at least, has always been about limiting the powers of government, checks and balances, federalism, two houses of the legislature, elections, and rule of law. What seems most obvious about our present regime is practical loss of these protections that were set up to limit the state. The Supreme Court in effect passes laws on its own. The President issues decrees but refuses to enforce the laws he is obliged to enforce. We will see the Pope’s take on these things when he addresses Congress in September. But it is unlikely that Francis will see America in the light of any need to limit state power as such.

There is an invisible thread joining every one of the forms of exclusion,” Pope Francis states:

“These are not isolated issues. Can we recognize that invisible thread joining every one of the forms of exclusion? These are not isolated issues. Can we recognize that invisible thread which links them? I wonder whether we can see that those destructive realities are part of a system which has become global. Do we realize that the system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?”

One needs time to parse this remarkable analysis. The Pope evidently “sees” an “invisible” thread that most of us do not see so clearly. The thread excludes people. They or their governments do not exclude themselves by their choices and actions. The “invisible” thread—one is reminded of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—is worldwide. The “thread” betrays a “system”. This “system” has not exactly taken anything from others. Rather it has “imposed a mentality”. Just how it has accomplished this imposition is not clear. In any case, it had to do with “profit at any price”. This “any price” is presumably to distinguish it from “profit at a just price”. Without some kind of measure of success or failure, usually called money, no system can work. This invisible “thread” also excludes and destroys nature.

The Pope, as I mentioned, is apocalyptic. In one of many similar passages, Francis graphically tells us:

“Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreparable harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth’s entire peoples and individual groups are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction is the stench…of the “dung of the devil.”

An unfettered pursuit of money rules. Presumably there is a “fettered” pursuit of money that is legitimate, just as there is a profit that is not “at any price”. How these latter might work is difficult to determine from the lecture. The Pope is clear that thinking of these things is a task that all of us must do. […]

On his way back from Paraguay on the plane, a German reporter asked the Pope why he seems always to divide the world into the very rich and very poor, but he does not pay much attention to the middle class. This is, of course, a question right out of Plato and Aristotle. This kind of division only sets one group off against another. The theory of the middle class was designed to account for the vast majority who were neither rich nor poor but understood that some rich and some poor would exist in any society. Much current discussion concerns the decline of the middle class and the growing division between rich and poor in western countries. The Pope himself often cites this latter fact. Yet, the cause of this decline is usually said to be because the poor countries can do these jobs cheaper and with as much skill. This transfer of jobs is a boon to the poorer countries, something presumably the Pope wants to see.

But first, I think it wise to say something occasioned by the appointments of Schnellhuber, Starks, and Kline to be papal advisors on ecology. Here we are concerned with the relation of marriage and family issues to state and ecological theory. Some claim that the Pope made these appointments to entice scientists to a more moderate view. Ecology and environmentalism are, however, not just pious theories about caring for the Earth. We have here an overarching theory for the control of population in which contraception, abortion, limited families, “gay marriage”, cloning, euthanasia, and state control of both begetting and children are necessary and interconnected components.

The suppositions on earth-warming and planetary destruction that the Holy Father maintains as inarguable are, in fact, neither scientifically unchallenged nor neutral on moral grounds.

The desire to reduce the population of the earth to less than a billion, which some of these advisers hold, is a logical consequence of a dogmatic “belief” about the capacity or incapacity of the Earth to sustain man. It implies a denial of his ability to provide for present or greater populations with the riches that God has given to the planet, a riches that includes the human mind and its scope. Analytically speaking, this combination of ecology and population control is a form of tyranny that justifies state control of human action and prospects.

Further, it is not by accident that the incentive and means for the sort of care of the earth that the Pope encourages takes place in the developed world and nowhere else. My main point here is to suggest the logic that exists, once we assume the validity of a theory about population and limited resources. All the “means” noted above follow and are being followed step by step to a world with an elite few and the need to rid the planet of six or seven billion actually existing people—this on the theory that we cannot care for them. That, however, is simply not true. The Holy Father is certainly against abortion, euthanasia, and population control. What seems unclear to many is how advisers who hold these practices necessary in view of theories of ecology are at all helpful to what the Pope is really after. We all should be on the side of growth and virtue, not death and control.

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