If Pope Francis raises his voice on behalf of the poor, he could deal the final blow to austerity economics.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That’s a quote from the New Testament, but it’s easy to imagine many in Europe expressing the same sentiment today, and I don’t just mean the crowd that gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica last week to watch the newly elected Pope Francis make his first address. It applies just as much to austerity advocates throughout the European Union who continue to assure themselves that economic growth and recovery will come if they just keep cutting deeper. As Pope Francis leads the Church into a new era, he may also be able to help bring the age of austerity to a close.
The man formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a lot of hopes pinned on him, not the least of which is that he’ll serve as an advocate for the poor and an opponent of the economic policies that are afflicting them. The left has been let down on this front before; Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the “scandal of glaring inequalities" and condemned “unregulated financial capitalism,” but most progressives wouldn’t exactly consider him a staunch ally given his rejection of just about everything else they believe in. Already, critics have highlighted Pope Francis’s condemnation of gay rights and rumored collaboration with Argentine’s dictatorship, and as Mother Jones’s Eric Kain writes, “If the cardinals had elected a pro-choice pope, that would have been real news.”
But there are reasons to believe progressive optimism about Pope Francis isn’t totally misplaced. E.J. Dionne notes that he’s “the first pope to take the name of the saint known for his devotion to humility and to the poor.” He’s also the first pope from Latin America, which brings a new perspective to the Vatican and suggests that he’s “likely to weigh in often on behalf of the world’s poorest regions.” And to top it all off, he’s a Jesuit, which even among Catholics makes him the equivalent of that guy from college who made you feel bad by telling you he spent his summer volunteering with Habitat for Humanity while you were busy doing tequila shots. (There are also anecdotes about the modest life he chose to lead, but that feels uncomfortably close to saying Scott Brown would make a good senator because he drove a truck.)
Still, even if the new pope does emerge as a progressive voice on these issues, some might be tempted (no pun or theological implications intended) to dismiss his influence on economic policy. Regardless of whether you believe he’s really infallible, he’s still just one man (albeit one with a whole lot of employees), and the architects of austerity won’t be swayed by the power of prayer alone. But even they may be starting to question their beliefs – with their citizens protesting in the streets and voting them out of office, they don’t have much choice. The Associated Press reports that European leaders “aren't backing away aggressively from budget cuts and higher taxes, but they are increasingly trying to temper these policies, which have stifled growth and made it harder for many countries to bring their deficits under control.” A strong and sustained condemnation from the Holy See would make their position even more tenuous, even if the Church’s power in Europe is greatly diminished from what it once was. It might even give pause to austerity sympathizers on this side of the Atlantic, like former altar boy Paul Ryan. Okay, maybe we can’t expect miracles.
In Europe, the U.S., and throughout the world, people are losing faith in their leaders. Policies that attempt to prop up the status quo of a broken financial system while ignoring and even exacerbating real human suffering have made us feel cynical, isolated, and angry. Pope Francis has been called on to lead the Catholic Church, but he has an opportunity to provide some much needed guidance to people of all faiths or none. The message that will make that possible is not a sectarian one, but a universal one. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and caring for those in need, not supporting the rich and powerful, has to be the top priority of a healthy, sustainable society. In our holy texts and our constitutions, we’ve made that promise. Now it’s time to keep the faith.
Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.
Pope Francis image via Shutterstock.com.