The Pope, Ideology and Symbolism

Since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has been placed in a position which many Catholics are largely unfamiliar with. The Catholic Church has long spoken about the need to be compassionate to those less fortunate, they are Christians after all, but for many years has focussed on social issues. Considering that the Church’s leadership is comprised of exclusively celibate men it always seemed odd that the primary focus of the Church was the sexual habits of its members.

These conservative attitudes toward sex have remained official Church doctrine but Pope Francis has been keen to soften the rhetoric around issues that still generate strong opinions among Catholics around the world. Pope Francis has decided to make the idolatry of money and the consequences of a world-view shaped by concern only for oneself as the new focus of the Catholic Church, and I believe that this is because of a wider global realignment against the neoliberal consensus.
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The Pope’s act of spontaneous compassion puts the West to shame, as it reveals Western culture to be inherently selfish and ignores our shared humanity. (AP)
Pope Francis made headlines this week because of his decision to take 12 refugees from Greece back to the Vatican in an act that has been applauded by people across the world. In both practical and symbolic terms this shames the rest of the world, especially those in the ‘West’. On a practical level this is more than we could have expected. According to the United Nations, Vatican City has a population of between 400 and 500 people. If we split the difference for the sake of maths, on a purely proportional level, Pope Francis has just taken in the same number of refugees as 2.5% of the Vatican’s total population. To put that into perspective, if we use the figures from the UN once again, that is the equivalent to the United States taking in over 8.3 million people.
Now obviously this statistic is slightly disingenuous as the Catholic Church is one of the richest entities in the world, but it’s also worth pointing out that the US is the richest nation-state in the history of humanity. People who claim that their country cannot afford to house new refugees, and that their country physically cope with having refugees coming in often boil down their feelings into slogans like ‘there’s no more money’ or ‘there’s no more room’. These statements are clearly false, and this is why the Pope’s decision should have an influence on us.
According to the Congressional Budget Office US Federal spending for the fiscal year beginning in 2015 was $3.7 trillion. President Obama has said that the US will take in 10,000 refugees in the coming year, and this is a good start but realistically it is not enough. The Refugee Crisis is not a uniquely Middle-Eastern or European problem, it is a human problem and the richest nations need to help the most. I’m not trying to pick on the US but I don’t think its controversial to say that the US largely acts as the de facto leader of the West.
On a symbolic level this act of compassion shows how little the West has done to support these people. Right-wingers who are opposed to refugees coming into their respective countries often base their concerns in the fear of the Christian heritage of their nation being undermined in some way. I am what could be described as a vehement atheist but I having a working knowledge of the Bible and what struck me when I saw the Pope reach out to 12 refugees was how Jesus said that the proportion of the help offered is more important than the amount. In Mark’s Gospel (12:41-44 in the New International Version to be precise) Jesus explicitly says this message about the offering of a widow to the Temple’s treasury. Jesus’ message was to be willing to give everything away, even if you have nothing, in service of your community. The xenophobes are ignoring what Jesus said whilst decrying the lose of their country’s Christian heritage. Oh the irony.
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These people don’t understand that defending America’s ‘Christian values’ whilst chastising the vulnerable is massively ironic. (Ross Franklin/AP)
The West has the money to help refugees, and the fact that the Pope is highlighting this shows an interesting departure from simply talking about compassion in an abstract way. Because he has led by example, the Pope can authentically talk about greed and selfishness without being seen as a hypocrite. The Catholic Church needed to rebrand itself after the Sex Abuse scandal made headlines a few years ago, and luckily for them a Pope was elected that wanted to talk about the flaws of individualism. The reason I say that this is lucky is that I believe that the world is going through a time where the neoliberal consensus is being challenged.
As well as bringing questions about identity politics, religion, and foreign policy, the Refugee Crisis strikes at the heart of what is wrong with neoliberalism as an ideology. When we, as humans, see other human beings suffering we instinctively want to help. This altruistic approach is part of the human condition, but it is omitted from the dominant ideology of the West. Since the late 1970s neoliberal ideas have been perpetuated by right-wing parties across the world and the electoral success of these parties changed the domestic political discourse in many Western countries. These parties’ success has been such that the traditionally left-wing parties began shifting to the centre-ground and accepting many of the principles of neoliberal economics.
The popularity of the Pope has largely been a result of his compassionate approach to many different issues, and the fact that he has been so popular is indicative of a wider ideological shift away from the individualism that is encouraged by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism preaches a creed venerating the individual over the collective and wealth accumulation being morally good. However, more and more people are realising that this approach to life is not moral. Looking at every aspect of the world through a prism of financial viability is dehumanising as this approach seeks to put a financial value on things that shouldn’t be commodified. Although the rights of the individual are important in any functioning society, the idea that pursuing your own self-interest even if it is harmful to your neighbours is beginning to wear thin. The Church’s focus is therefore a reflection of this shift.
Radicalism in now in vogue but the question needs to be how we work to make this radicalism benefit everyone. Take the example of the US. The Democratic Party’s base has shifted to the Left. This is for a combination of different reasons but one of the key ones is that people have realised that neoliberalism is an ideology that doesn’t benefit society, it benefits a cartel of international capitalists. Admittedly most Democrats wouldn’t phrase it like that, but they acknowledge that the premises that had been assumed for many years required challenging. The ideology of Hayek, Friedman, and Reagan championed an almost fetishization of the market. The market was seen as an objective arbiter of what is good and what is bad. However this ideological view creates a society that is hostile, atomised, and selfish.
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The neoliberal trajectory of the West has stoked resentment and raised an entire generation to be consumers, unconcerned about the plight of the needy. (ABC)
The radicalism proposed by Donald Trump is inherently racist and should be avoided like the plague, but the radicalism of Ted Cruz is just as dangerous as it proposes to put Friedmanite policies into overdrive. Western countries need new political leaders that reject neoliberalism and institute policies that restore the collective dimension society rather than continue to define it as lots of individuals only concerned with themselves.
I am no friend of the Catholic Church and the purpose of this piece wasn’t to say how wonderful that institution is, because that would be incorrect, but the shifting of the focus of the Church is indicative of a wider disillusionment with the neoliberal consensus. A new generation of politically aware people, whether this is the young or the previously apolitical, has seen that neoliberalism brings out the worst aspects of human nature- selfishness, greed, schadenfreude etc.- and are now seeking an alternative.
The Refugee Crisis has illustrated that, although there are many who are scared of what they deem as ‘The Other’, there are just as many that want to reach out a compassionate hand of fraternity. The Pope is one of those individuals that people from all over the world will always listen to even if they profoundly disagree, and his focus on money is important. By giving a perspective on capitalism that has been exorcised from the mainstream political discourse, the Pope is challenging people to think critically about Western society’s faults. In essence, the Pope is showing that greed is not good.
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