Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pope Francis Goes After the Idolatry of Money: A Theological Critique of Wall Street

How far must religion extend to retain its potency? Is religion like the law, having its fingers into everything? In Evangem Gaddium, Pope Francis formally puts his imprint on economic policy from a theological standpoint. The question is whether the connection is a bridge too far.
The Pope presents his intended nexus explicitly in the term, "idolatry of money.”[1]  With Wall Street and London undoubtedly in his sights, the Pope draws on the historical theological stance that the sin of greed is in turn based on idolatry. Lest it be presumed that treating money as an idol in the created realm is the bedrock, the decision to idolize money honors the idolizer. Therefore, greed is ultimately founded on self-idolatry: a creature vaunting itself above even its Creator. The question is whether the theological fix can be as specific as the Pope specifies in his first apostolic exhortation. Moreover, is even an ethically salubrious economic policy the answer to a sin or a category mistake?
In terms of policy, the Pope extolls politicians to guarantee all citizens "dignified work, education and healthcare."[2] In effect, he would have human rights applied on an economic basis. Additionally, he calls for an overhaul of the financial system and warns that unequal distribution of wealth inevitably leads to violence. "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."[3]  Before issuing his 84-page paper, the Pope had spoken out against the clergy and laity who obsess on abortion by pushing a particular partisan position. Severe economic inequality kills too. This is not to say that the Pope advocates “a simple welfare mentality.”[4] Even if the Pope obviates charges of partisanship along familiar ideological divisions, the question remains: Is the Pope implying in his writing that significantly reducing such inequality also restores the inequality between the self-idolater and God?
The Pope may indeed inadvertently reduce a fundamental (and enduring) theological problem to a policy solution in claiming, "As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems."[5] Presumably the cleric would not have excluded the theological variety. Hence, given all that rides on the economic prescription being advocated by the Pope, he asks for divine intervention capable of reaching down into the bowels of legislative business. "I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor."[6] Is this not akin to begging the Lord to take sides in a bloody war, and, moreover, is it not at least slightly presumptuous  to take it as a given that God is the sort of ultimacy wherein particular policies or positions matter? 

3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.