WASHINGTON – In a random counterpoint to the grossness of our Black Friday urges, Pope Francis I is pleading with his bishops to come out of their mansions and side with the working poor.
Francis’ appeal, part of an “exhortation” for spiritual renewal, contains the most passionate and detailed attack on the world’s “economic system,” meaning unrestrained capitalism, in Vatican history.
Former popes issued cautionary messages to business in 1891 and 1931 to counter Marxism’s appeal to exploited labor. John Paul II warned in 1991 that the global economy was taking place “over the heads” of ordinary people. Those letters were too high-toned to move many clergy.
There were exceptions to this clerical isolation, some in Buffalo. In 1899, Father Patrick Cronin rallied grain workers against the oppression of waterfront boss William “Fingey” Conners (later owner of the Buffalo Courier-Express). Bishop James Quigley backed the strikers, telling them the “diamonds [Conners] wears are the crystallized tears of your women.” In the 1920s and ’30s, the bishops of Buffalo created labor colleges where would-be unionists were taught organizing and bargaining tactics. Among the lecturers were priests and judges, including Charles S. Desmond, who would later become chief judge of New York State.
They fell into disuse, some say because they succeeded in elevating laboring Catholics into the middle class. Today, Buffalo is among the poorest cities in the nation. The last three bishops were mainly preoccupied with real estate management.
Where John Paul balanced his concerns about capitalism, communism and other forms of statism, Francis leaves no doubt about his contempt for today’s world economic system.
“The worship of the ancient golden calf,” Francis writes, “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. Man is reduced to one of his needs alone: Consumption.”
Francis mocks “trickle-down” investment theory that wealth created at the top will enrich all. The notion, he said, depends on “naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” It couldn’t and didn’t work out for the millions who are seeing growing disparities in income, he says.
“The majority of our contemporaries,” Francis says, “are barely living from day to day.” The misery of these masses, he says, has moved beyond oppression and exploitation. Human beings themselves, according to the pope, are becoming “consumer goods to be used and disposed of. … The excluded are not the ‘exploited,’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’ ”
As powerful as it is, the Jesuit pope’s exhortation on business faces a tough sell in this country. A wealthy Catholic laity and many bishops have moved steadily to the right, crusading on issues like the church’s ban on contraception (which Francis does not mention once in the 86-page document) over relief of poverty. The American Church, like the rest of the social and political establishment, has been quiet about the minimum wage and union rights.
Nothing has been said by the establishment of the inexorable weakening of federal laws guaranteeing workers in big-box stores time off, or overtime pay or organizing rights. Perhaps the new labor secretary, Thomas Perez, who was raised Catholic in Buffalo, may hear this pope.
My copy of the document was passed on by Jim Van Dyke, a Jesuit priest. Here’s a link: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html.