In Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory (1940), a soon-to-be-martyred Mexican priest on the run from government troops encounters a haunting sight while saying Mass: local peasants who, having toiled all day at their backbreaking work, come before the altar and spread their arms as if on a crucifix, imitating Christ on the cross. “One more mortification squeezed out of their harsh and painful lives,” thinks the priest.
While the Marxist lieutenant chasing the priest sees the answer to their torment in the overthrow of the ancient alliance between an exploitative economic system and the church, the priest sees the answer in trust in the afterlife. After all, “If they really believed in Heaven or Hell,” as the lieutenant later mockingly parrots him, “they wouldn’t mind a little pain now, in return for what immensities....”
One can admire Greene’s novel while also noting that he was not particularly subtle in his characterizations. There are the passing things of this world, and then there is the eternal glory of paradise, and so what’s a little injustice, economic or otherwise, in the meantime? Added bonus: it builds character.
His depiction speaks to a tension present in Christianity and Christendom since Luke recorded Jesus’ mention that “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” When, and where? In paradise? In the here and now? Depending on one’s worldview, Jesus’ words are a call to economic revolution and the widespread redistribution of wealth or a justification for economic inequality and laissez-faire capitalism. In the United States, many of us seem to view Jesus’ words as a promise to the poor that one day we’ll make it up to them.
Pope Francis, who saw the Argentine economy shrink by a third in only four years at the turn of the millennium, has raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers in recent months by referring to American-style capitalism as “a new tyranny” and the equivalent of idol worship for the way it exploits the poor. Other prominent church leaders have gone further: “This economy kills,” Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras recently told an audience in Washington, D.C., “That is what the pope is saying.” For some American Catholic public figures accustomed to a close alliance with the Vatican on all matters but war, it has come as a bit of a shock to be compared to the high priests of Ba’al.
In fact, a prominent American prelate recently argued that Francis wasn’t referring to American-style capitalism at all in his condemnation of this new idolatry: “[W]hat many people around the world experience as ‘capitalism’ isn’t recognizable to Americans. For many in developing or newly industrialized countries, what passes as capitalism is an exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy.”
Prescinding from the question of how many Americans see our current system as exactly such an exploitative racket, there is another problem with this argument: Francis’ own words. “We discard a whole generation to maintain an economic system that no longer endures, a system that to survive has to make war, as the big empires have always done,” the pope noted in a recent interview with La Vanguardia. “But since we cannot wage the Third World War, we make regional wars. And what does that mean? That we make and sell arms. And with that the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies—the big world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money—are obviously cleaned up.”
Of course, Francis is no economist, nor do his remarks have any binding force. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves as to who he thinks are the tormentors of the poor, or who are the idolaters. He is not blaming the banana republics and crony capitalists of the third world. He’s blaming us.
Ironically, Pope Francis would have found an ally in Graham Greene, despite the latter’s earlier convictions. Greene came to believe that the economic suffering of the poor was neither necessary nor favored by God, and that the proliferation of the Western economic order threatened Catholicism everywhere. A vocal supporter of liberation theology and critic of unfettered capitalism, he once told a journalist that Marxist regimes could only destroy the church physically, “whereas the Americans destroy its soul.”