Is Pope Francis a Positive Force or a Dangerous Illusion?

Francis wolf

A good friend of mine recently shared a link from the Real News Network that deserves a response. It was an interview with Chris Hedges criticizing Pope Francis for not being radical enough in his denunciation of capitalism and imperialism. The award-winning journalist gave the impression that the pope should have denounced both as such and offered alternatives.

I was surprised by Hedges’ remarks. That’s because my personal assessment is that the pope actually has done all three. He has been scathing in his denunciation of capitalism; he has denounced colonial imperialism, and has offered clear alternatives to capitalism-as-we-know-it. The pope did so during his” homecoming” trip through Latin America late last summer, during his subsequent six-day trip to the United States, and especially in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS).

On his Latin American tour, Pope Francis’ was quite direct in his denunciation of capitalism and imperial colonialism.

For instance, 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, he said, subordinate states to outside powers which also exercise control through misguided measures 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.

Still in Latin America, the pope 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.”

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.”

For me, all of that represents not only criticism of imperialism, but of the free market system.

Then during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis offered an extremely harsh denunciation of capitalism itself. There he in effect referred to economic system we know as “filthy,” “rotten,” and “putrid.” He called the Wall Street speculators “hypocrites.” Moreover, the pope directly confronted the members of his audience by calling the system they represented “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world today. And he implied that  the politicians seated before him were a bunch of gangsters.

Even Chris Hedges may have missed all of that, because the polite, soft-spoken, and gentle pontiff was a gracious enough guest to say none of those things directly. He did so instead by offering Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton as embodiments of our country’s greatest values.

It was Dorothy Day who is remembered as saying, “We need to overthrow . . . this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

It was King who called the United States itself, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And it was Thomas Merton, the apostle of non-violence, who classified U.S. politicians and military leaders among the world’s gangsters when he said, “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle . . .”

Moreover, Pope Francis did not leave his audience merely reeling from such heavy blows un-complemented by clear systemic alternatives to the filthy rotten arrangement he addressed. Instead, the pontiff called for a deep restructuring of capitalism-as-we-know-it. This would involve turning the present system’s preferential option for the rich precisely on its head, replacing it with his favorite guideline, the “preferential option for the poor.” Even more particularly, restructuring would require a central international legislative body endowed with power to override national economic practices judged to be environmentally unsound.

Both recommendations are found clearly stated in Laudato Si’ which the pope cited in his congressional address (LS 53, 173-175). Surprisingly, both have already been implemented world-wide.

To begin with, the New Deal, the Great Society and (even more so) Europe’s introduction of the welfare state already represent arrangements which forefronted the needs of the working classes and poor. The reform measures were at the very least strong gestures towards economies mixed in favor of the poor rather than of the Wall Street rich. Such reforms demonstrated that another economic order is indeed possible.

As for the world body with power to enforce environmental legislation, the World Trade Organization (WTO) already has it, though perversely in its present form. According to the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (and of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership), multinational corporations (MNCs) now have the power to sue before the WTO and invalidate U.S. environmental protection standards if those laws can be shown to diminish a corporation’s expected profits.

What the pope is proposing is an international body that turns the WTOs mandate upside-down.  The body the pope proposes would have binding power to protect the environment from the depredations of MNCs – i.e. is to eliminate their profits if they result from environmental destruction.

So I respectfully suggest that Chris Hedges is mistaken when he says Pope Francis has pulled his punches. The pontiff has been quite specific in offering alternatives to the system he has so sharply critized. As an honored guest, he gently delivered knock-out blows clearly observable to attentive listeners.

It remains for prophets like Hedges and others to highlight and reinforce them and in this way to advance us towards the Other World Pope Francis would convince skeptics is possible.


Published by

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.

6 thoughts on “Is Pope Francis a Positive Force or a Dangerous Illusion?”

  1. Chris Hedges is my number one countercultural commentator/prophet. I look forward to his pieces on Truthdig every Monday. I have great love and respect for Chris and what he says.

    Having said that, I have to say that I have seen him change over these last few years. The refusal of the more conscious segment of the American public to acknowledge and confront the slide of America and industrial civilization as a whole towards collapse and possible near term extinction, has made Chris suggest more and more radical forms of social and political revolution as the only possible way to make the drastic changes that must be made in people’s thinking and behavior if we are to avert the doom that is staring at us right now today. There are several events that could happen any day that would pitch the human world into a hopeless death spiral overnight. Nuclear war is only one of these potential catastrophes.

    The fact that such a true revolution seems impossible to make happen does not deter Chris from now posing it as the only real solution. I think the odds are that he is right, but that we are beyond the point of saving ourselves from the ugly forces we have heedlessly released on the world. The odds are that we will before long terminate the human stay on this beautiful and abused planet. An ultimate tragedy powered by hubris, Man’s deadly disease.

    Does this discourage me from striving to develop and share unconditional Love for all Beings? No. That Love is not dependent on any conditions, including the death of Mankind. I will work to serve that to the end of my Earthly life. The only possible solution to our problems is unconditional Love, and I will continue on that Path regardless of any seeming absence of results….


    1. Your comments are always so thoughtful and helpful, Mike. I too am a great admirer of Chris Hedges. I love to hear him talk and to see his writings about the prison work he’s involved in. These are fearful times.


  2. By the way Mike, I think your defense of Pope Francis is right on. He is doing more for the Truth than anyone can have expected from one in his position. Bravo Francis, your name is well chosen!

    As far as giving details of my life-long struggle to free myself from the lies and deceptions of my culture, that is too long a story for a brief essay. You know from your own experience how long and difficult it is to winnow a real spirituality from the maze of false and inadequate paths that we are confronted with. To seek spiritual clarity necessarily means battling with the forces of the world as our society has misshaped it over a long period. My congratulations to you for having engaged that struggle with great success.


    1. Though I’d love to hear your story, Mike, I understand your position. As for Pope Francis, what do you think of Jim’s comment? Jim is a former colleague of mine in the Society of St. Columban. He thinks Pope Francis is all talk and little substance or follow-through. I very much understand where he’s coming from. It’s difficult to be hopeful about anyone in today’s world of show, window-dressing, propaganda, and lies.


  3. Mike
    Re Hedges.
    I am inclined to disagree. I feel Hedges was being kind to the pope.
    He is a gentleman as well as being a scholar and devout christian.
    I thing the popes and HR CC are part of our problem
    They have changed the Jesus Message for multiple unacceptable self promoting reasons.
    Francis is all talk, most of which is in language not understood by catholics of goodwill
    of which there are many.
    Unless the present CC is fundamentally made to change
    it will continue on the same crooked road to no-change
    Sorry being late with my comment.
    I like your blog allot
    Best wishes and love to all your family.
    Which article I will read now.
    BTW Mike fellow a Milton man still a priest sent me the TruthDig excellent article.
    Watching part of Conventions….really sad to see such a great country becoming an international joke.


    1. Dear Jim,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I was wondering what you actually thought about the Hedges interview. Thanks for sharing the link. I join in your admiration of Chris Hedges. Did you see him recently on “Democracy Now” debating Robert Reich? It was very good. Hedges is truly prophetic.

      I appreciate your remarks about the Catholic Church and its (lack of) “leadership” as well as the perverseness of its overall history. People like us have experienced that history more deeply than most.

      However, as you know, over the years I’ve become a strong supporter of Pope Francis. Would you please send me your mailing address? I’d like to send you a copy of my little book on Laudato Si’. It has a lot about Francis, his “conversion,” and adoption of liberation theology. Don’t worry though: I’m not trying to convert you!

      I so appreciate your reading my blog, Jim, and the helpful feedback and encouragement you’ve always given. — Mike

      P.S. I actually dreamt about you last night. We were at some kind of meeting, and I introduced you to my children who were also present. I suppose that was in response to your closing comment about reading my posted “Letter to My Children.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s