“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings.”
— Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Gospel of Joy.”
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has captured the imagination of popular consciousness. Stories on his apparent success in shifting the conversation away from doctrinaire impasses and toward a message of mercy frequently appear in popular news sites, reaching a highpoint in his further “election” as Time’s Man of the Year. Time and again, Pope Francis has brought into dialogue individuals, groups, and ideas that were traditionally outside the familiar religious circle.
Though it was not the principal message of his first papal writing—the apostolic exhortation titled Evangelii Gaudium, or “Gospel of Joy”— the pope’s condemnation of economic inequality caught international attention. Last week, it was the dominant theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This week, it stands central in President Obama’s State of the Union address.
Now, to state the obvious, Evangelii Gaudium is a sermon, not an economic treatise, but it has been criticized as such by many, including Sarah Palin— “He’s had some statements that to me sound kind of liberal,”—and Rush Limbaugh—“It’s sad, because .. he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to capitalism and socialism.”
These critics view the Pope as overstepping traditional boundaries and wading into a field in which he is either misinformed or altogether wrong; the ire he has gained from conservative Catholics in the religious sphere for his comments on homosexuality, communion for divorcees, and a great role for women in the church is now shared by paleo- and neo-conservative economists, who see in his commentary a nascent form of “Marxism.”
But others, like Chris Kelly in the Scranton Times Tribune, answer Limbaugh’s claim that someone has “gotten to him”:
“Rush is right. Somebody has gotten to Pope Francis. Somebody named Jesus Christ. The Jesus of Scripture, not the Trickle-Down Jesus of Aw-Shucks Hucksters and Wall Street banksters selling the “Gospel of Prosperity.”
Jesus has been co-opted by the very powers he sought to supplant. In their version of the Gospel, the Good Samaritan tells the roadside victim to help himself. The poor, sick and elderly are left to fend for themselves. Black Friday is held holier than Good Friday…
Trickle-Down Christians are sore at Pope Francis because he has dared to point out that much of what ails the world today is analogous to the world Jesus walked. The power and prosperity of the planet is hoarded by a tiny percentage of the population while billions go hungry, sick and unheard…
The Jesus of Scripture challenged us to look critically at ourselves, to peer into the dark corners of our hearts and minds and hold ourselves accountable for our thoughts and actions. He challenged us to see what is and say what should be, to speak truth to power, no matter the consequences.”
The Pope’s message is just the latest in a growing series of clarion calls for action on the systemic problems with the current financial system. David Simon—the creator of the Wire—recently made an impromptu speech about the threat of widening inequality and the need for reform:
“People are saying I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.
That we’ve gotten to this point is astonishing to me because basically in winning its victory, in seeing that Wall come down and seeing the former Stalinist state’s journey towards our way of thinking in terms of markets or being vulnerable, you would have thought that we would have learned what works. Instead we’ve descended into what can only be described as greed. This is just greed. This is an inability to see that we’re all connected, that the idea of two Americas is implausible, or two Australias, or two Spains or two Frances…
And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrench-ment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind…
I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me. .. [C]apitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course.”
It is not just artists, journalists, and the faithful who see a need for reform and more emphasis on ethics. A new report of the Economist Intelligence Unit—“A crisis of culture and ethics in financial services”— detailed data and research on the matter. The report “examines the role of integrity and knowledge in restoring culture in the financial services industry and in building a more resilient industry.” It suggests that adhering to ethical standards can halt or slow down career progression in the financial industry.
Reinforcing this report are personal accounts of many financial professionals, e.g., Chris Arnade in a Guardian article “Here’s why Wall Street has a hard time being ethical.” Arnade writes:
“My first year on Wall Street, 1993, I was paid 14 times more than I earned the prior year and three times more than my father’s best year. For that money, I helped my company create financial products that were disguised to look simple, but which required complex math to properly understand. That first year I was roundly applauded by my bosses, who told me I was clever, and to my surprise they gave me $20,000 bonus beyond my salary…
I rationalized that our group was careful by Wall Street standards, trying to stay close to the letter of the law. We tried to abide by an unwritten “five-point rule”: never intentionally make more than five percentage points of profit from a customer… Some competitors didn’t care about the rule. They were making 7% or 10% profit per trade .. , selling exotic products loaded with hidden traps. I assumed they would eventually face legal charges, or at least public embarrassment, for pushing so clearly away from the spirit of the law … They didn’t. Rather, they got paid better, were lauded as true risk takers, and offered big pay packages. ”
At what point does the moral momentum reach a tipping point? What can be done in practice? Evangilii Gaudium does not include a policy manual for instant economic reform. Still, Pope Francis makes it clear that the status-quo is as unbearable as it is unsustainable.
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? .. Today, everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. .. [M]asses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: Without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
— Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Gospel of Joy.”
“The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal.“