“Laudato Si’” and Its Preferential Option for the Poor (Part Two): Pope Francis’ Critique of Capitalism

Dung of Devil

This is the second installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. Overall, the series attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.”  This second part addresses Pope Francis’ critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it.

Pope Francis’ Critique of Capitalism

The first entry in this series on Laudato Si contextualized the significance of its author’s origins in the Global South. It argued that till Francis, Catholic social teaching had largely focused on Western and Eastern Europe. The social pronouncements of Italian popes were largely concerned with the problems of Western Europe and the threatened loss of the working class to the allures of socialism and communism. Beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, the Italians set the stage for the introduction of Europe’s extensive welfare state.

With the election of a Polish and subsequently of a German pope, papal focus shifted to Eastern Europe and the dethroning of communism there. Pope John Paul II and his right hand man, Josef Ratzinger (later to become Benedict XVI) cooperated with the Reagan administration (and specifically with the CIA’s William Casey) in facilitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With that demise achieved, it appeared to most that capitalism had won a definitive victory. Corporate globalization stood virtually unchallenged.

However, all of this changed with the ascent of Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio to the papal throne in 2013. As the first pope from Latin America, Pope Francis has repeatedly called capitalism’s “final victory” into question. No longer focusing on Europe (western or eastern), he shifted focus to the Global South, to the poverty colonialism and unfettered capitalism had caused there.

He focused on connections between deregulated markets and the rape of the Earth Mother indigenous Catholics of the Andes called Pachamama. Without apology, he espoused a “preferential option for the poor,” and spoke clearly about the rejection of the neoliberal globalized order lionized by the corporate elite.

Such sentiments were nowhere more clearly expressed than in the speeches delivered by Pope Francis during his summer “homecoming” trip to Latin America. In written form, they were evident in his landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ and in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

Addressing the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Francis traced today’s global problems back to their origins in European colonialism beginning in 1492. But he also identified new forms of colonialism exercised through corporations, loan agencies, “free trade” treaties, and imposition of “austerity measures.”

Such actors and policies subordinate states to outside powers which also exercise control through misguided policies ostensibly aimed at controlling drug trafficking, political corruption, and terrorism. More subtly, external powers colonize, destroy local cultures and foster cultural uniformity through communications monopolies, which the pope described as “ideological colonialism.”

“Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new,” he said.

The pope was completely outspoken. He went on to criticize capitalism-as-we-know-it as “an invisible thread” connecting problems of world poverty, worker exploitation, landlessness among farmers, homelessness, and destruction of the natural environment. That system imposes the mentality of profit at any price without concern for its impact on displaced peasants and workers or for its destructive effects on “Mother Earth.”

This is indeed capitalism-as-we-know-it.

The system, he said “is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”

Though some have criticized the pope for stepping outside his area of competence, his condemnation of the reigning economic system is specifically biblical, theological, and moral.

Like the prophets of the Jewish Testament, he identifies “the existing system” with idolatry, the most serious of biblical sins. In his strongest condemnation yet, Francis quoted the 4th century sage, Basil of Caesarea, calling today’s capitalism “the dung of the devil” – i.e. the excrement of evil personified. Stronger language can hardly be imagined.

Theologically, Francis echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.” The existing system, the pope said, “runs counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.

Morally, then, the pope called working against capitalism-as-we-know-it – “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in “Evangelii Gaudium,” where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”

(Next installment: the “other world” Francis sees as possible)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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