Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Pope says Thatcher was wrong, wrong, wrong

Some early comments on the papal ‘exhortation’ entitled Evangelii Gaudium has focused on Francis I’s more explicit objections to unbridled capitalism. Lynne Stuart Parramore at Alternet wondered if he was staging a Karl Marx revival, and others noted that after his two predecessors’ three decades of relentless persecution of the progressive Latin American priesthood, the basic tenets of liberation theology are back (one is tempted to add the un-Francis-like phrase ‘with a vengeance’). The remarkable pendulum swing is a reminder that the Catholic Church has survived for 2,000 years and probably isn’t going anywhere.

After a close reading of the document’s full 80-plus pages, I find ample confirmation of a sea change in Vatican thinking, with some signals more explicit than others. I’m no authority on Catholic theology, but they gave us plenty of Bible study during my Methodist upbringing. I’d say the new papal posture revives the Gospel message in fascinating ways. Or recalling the wags’ comments on John Paul I (the 30-day wonder), maybe the cardinals accidentally elected a Christian.

I’m drawn, oddly perhaps, not directly to the social doctrine in the document, but it’s treatment of one of the more mysterious aspects of Christian dogma for historians and certainly modern society—that of the idea of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. The pious and very sweet Sudanese Muslims I stayed with in 1979 respected the historical figure of Jesus but rolled their eyes at this heresy. It’s been standard Christian belief since the fifth century, and given that civil wars broke out over it way back then, it’s clearly fundamental.

Francis sets this concept at the heart of his criticism of modern secularism and capitalism in particular: the incarnation, he writes, “means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. . . . Our redemption has a social dimension because God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men.” In other words, Margaret Thatcher, in her famous crack that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families’, was all wet.

To ‘desire, seek and protect the good of others’ is at the core of Catholic doctrine, says Francis, and he repeats throughout the document that this principle of loving one’s neighbor outranks all the other teachings, including, he suggests fairly directly, all our dogma about sex and whatnot. We’re not here to judge but to elevate this Gospel message of love and concern for our fellow human creatures above all other tenets.

That’s strangely radical because Francis is pitting his version of the Ineffable against the frigid tenets of neoliberal capitalism and its god-like Invisible Hand. In fact, the debate is pointing up the quasi-mystical and downright religious underpinnings of the current worship of mammon being performed by our ruling elites and political classes of the ‘developed’ world.

Francis never repeats the Latin American bishops’ famous phrase from the 1968 Medellin conference about the Catholic Church’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ (later stamped out by John Paul II and his attack dog, Ratzinger cum Benedict XVI), but he paraphrases it over and over as early as paragraph #2 where he criticizes ‘the feverish pursuit of frivelous pleasures and a blunted conscience’. There’s much more in this curiously thought-provoking document, and I’m overcoming my resistance to give it a thorough read. More to come.

1 comment:

Laura Montgomery said...

Okay, I am going to read it.