“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.”

With those words, Pope Francis has set the cat among the pigeons of the Vatican — or perhaps, the dogmas racing — with a new letter that had little to do with miracles, instead launching a swingeing attack on capitalism and how it is done these days. Entitled Evangelii Gaudium — the joy of the Gospel — the document is what is known as an “apostolic exhortation”, and it goes somewhat further than previous documents have done in attacking the current economic structure of the world.

The last two popes weren’t unwilling to make such comments in general — very general — terms, but they were also a little more cagey about attacking the structure of social relations. Francis is more willing to name names:

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

It takes a Catholic to suggest that there may be problems aside from the world’s problems, but let’s let that pass. Francis’ attack is a more forthright attack on the existing economic system than the Church has put up for some time.

Liberals have been disappointed that he has explicitly rejected any discussion about female ordination, and has nothing but a few, well, homilies about abortion, and the Church’s failure to consider the desperate situation of women in dire poverty, or those who are victims of rape.

However, the dual focus of the new document is both inward and outward, and much of it is an explicit attack on Church bureaucracy and the power vested therein. It was the power of the Church’s “inner state” that led Cardinal Ratzinger to quit the papacy — strange to think that there is someone alive who is an ex-pope — and it was partly on his authority that the conclave chose someone more likely to stand up to the Church’s vast and entrenched internal fiefdoms.

However, it is his outward attacks on the broader economic system that are going to be of more interest to the rest of us. It is possible to exaggerate these — Francis is not proposing an alternative economic system, simply that the existing one change its moral compass, and he is vague about what is to be done to achieve that.

Yet even this moderate attack on the status quo has had Catholic conservatives quietly and politely fuming — especially US ones, based around the National Review, who would like to fuse the idea of a soul’s individual relationship to God with an individualistic market society. (“There is no such thing as the man in the street,” Evelyn Waugh once remarked. “There are streets, and men from time to time use them.”) In the National Review, Samuel Gregg spends a thousand words or so taking the Pope to task for attacking free enterprise, and, had he not started his hike up the mountain, I am sure the late Christopher Pearson would be doing the same thing here (perhaps Miranda Devine — the Hanna-Barbera version of cultural conservatism — will have a go).

Francis’ intervention is nothing new, of course, and harks back explicitly to Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII. In that document Leo explicitly rejected the then-growing socialist movement, but also condemned unfettered capitalism, rejected the idea that wage levels should be purely a matter between boss and worker, and advocated the idea of a “living wage”, set with regard to the worker’s needs, rather than the employer’s fiat.

Rerum Novarum sparked off two things. One was a Catholic social movement, drawing off older religious traditions and turning them towards active political involvement, which would find itself on both the Left and Right of politics throughout the century. It was also the underpinning for the “Harvester” judgement in Australia and the institution of the world’s first living wage system.

Rerum Novarum’s intent was conservative; socialism was the rising force, and the Church was hoping to hold a version of the existing order in place. But it’s a measure of where we’ve got to vis a vis capitalism that the document’s proposition that there was an order of life separate to the market, to which the latter should be subordinated, could be seen as startlingly radical when it reappears in a new form today.

It might also be a wake-up call to groups that were once motivated and inspired by such a social message and now worship at the temple of growth. The ALP springs to mind — or sections of it, anyway, their reforms done around the edges of a commitment to letting the market run people’s lives to a degree that makes them a pseudo-Liberal party. The result? They are now, on some scales, to the Right of the Catholic Church. Perhaps if that latter institution can find ways to renew itself by tappng into the wellsprings of life, there is hope for Labor as well. Miracles can happen.

Peter Fray

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