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Why Pope Francis just called labor unions “prophets”

The pope just lashed out at "advanced capitalist societies." Again. 

Pope Francis Visits Sri Lanka - Day 2
Pope Francis in Sri Lanka in 2015.
Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Here in America, at a celebration for a Christian evangelical group, Mike Pence praised “the free market” and “personal responsibility” — in short, capitalism -- as the basis for an ideal health care system. But early Wednesday across the Atlantic, Pope Francis delivered quite a contrary message.

In an audience at the Vatican with the Confederation of Trade Unions in Italy, the pope presented a more holistic — and some may say compassionate — alternative to Pence’s vision of the free market. Calling work a form of “civil love,” the pope described his vision of harmonious cooperation, in which the individual participates in meaningful work as part of a shared whole.

"If we think of the person without work, we are saying something partial, incomplete, because the person is fully realized when he or she becomes a worker: Because the individual becomes a person when he or she opens up to others, to social life, when he or she thrives in work,” he said. He spoke of a "new, human social pact, a new social pact for labor,” that would allow older workers to retire even as it allowed the young to find a trade (youth unemployment is a particular issue in Italy).

Francis praised unions on spiritual grounds, calling them “prophetic" institutions that give "a voice to those who have none, denounces those who would [as in the Biblical Book of Amos] ‘sell the needy for a pair of sandals’ … unmasks the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defends the cause of the foreigner, the least, the discarded. … But in our advanced capitalist societies, the union risks losing its prophetic nature, and becoming too similar to the institutions and powers that it should instead criticize.”

He also criticized the idea of a purely “market economy,” praising instead a “social market economy” balancing the goals of business with care for those “outside the walls” of industry, meaning those denied work by physical infirmity or condition, or those who, as immigrants, do not have the right to work.

"The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the trade union,” Francis added, “because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of the business.”

The pope has never been afraid to take a stand on economic issues

Francis’s speech reflects a wider trend in his public remarks, as he positions his role as pontiff as a persistent gadfly to capitalism: checking its worst excesses. In April, Francis gave a TED talk in which he repeatedly highlighted the importance of social justice: "How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples, and countries.”

In both cases, Francis’s words seem straightforward, even saccharine. But for many careful Vatican-watchers, Francis’s words tie into a much broader church tension — not just over the role of social justice in the Catholic Church, but also over the decree to which Catholic theology and economic perspective should be intertwined.

Francis’s open critiques of capitalism have caused their fair share of controversy within church circles, even before the election of capitalist in chief Donald Trump, previously known mostly as a real estate developer and deal-making businessman. Back in 2012, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan contributed a pointed op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, walking back any suggestion that the then-newly elected Francis might be a threat to capitalism.

“The answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control,” he wrote. “The church has consistently rejected coercive systems of socialism and collectivism, because they violate inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property.” Don’t worry, Dolan seemed to be telling Catholics wary of the new pope’s political leanings. He’s not as bad as he sounds.

Critics (and some supporters) of Francis’s approach to economic systems have often called him a “liberation theologian” — a loaded term. Liberation theology is a Marxist-influenced approach to Christian theology with its roots in Latin America that sees the overturning of oppressive power structures on this earth as well as the hereafter as central to the message of Christianity. This approach is certainly part of the pope’s cultural background. As the young Argentine bishop Jorge Bergoglio, working in Buenos Aires in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Francis would have been hard-pressed to escape it.

The liberation movement has many detractors, particularly among right-wing Catholics who see it as unnecessarily politicizing a religion whose concerns should transcend individual political issues.

But is Francis a liberation theologian? Tracing the liberation connections of the young Bergoglio is a tricky business for political as well as ideological reasons. Talking about liberation theology in Latin America in the ‘60s and ‘70s also means talking about tricky politics. During the Cold War both the US and Russia used politics and theology alike as ways of exerting ideological control in the region (a popular theory among more right-leaning Catholics is that the proliferation of liberation theology in South America was a KGB-backed propaganda outlet). In junta-era Argentina, supporting (or not supporting) liberation theology was a very political act.

So while young Bergoglio seems to have been vocally opposed to the movement — for reasons that may be as political as they were religious — he’s grown much more openly sympathetic to its theology in recent decades. In 2012, just six months after becoming pope, he invited one of the liberation theology movement’s major proponents, Gustavo Gutiérrez, to the Vatican and declared another, Oscar Romero, a “martyr.”

In recent interviews, he has described the movement as a “positive thing” for the religion. His 2015 encyclical, Laudato Sì (“Praise Be to You”), a condemnation of global social inequality, was likewise deeply indebted to the themes, if not the precise language, of the movement: closing with the charged statement: “This economy kills.”

Whether or not we frame Francis’s theology within the formal category of “liberation” theology, his stance, in this morning’s speech and elsewhere, is undeniably political. His understanding of Christianity is inextricable from social justice not just on the individual level — be a good person — but on the structural one: Some institutions and modes of governing (and commerce) are inherently more sinful than others. And, while Francis has not said so directly — his points tend to be subtly made — his vision of a Christian society stands in stark opposition to that of Pence.

It’s worth pointing out here that, despite Francis’s critics, it’s difficult to find a religious attitude that doesn’t have structural political implications; as Elizabeth Bruenig notes in the New Republic, the rise of the Protestant religious right in America was closely linked to a pro-capitalist ethos of freedom as a Christian value; so too, the “prosperity gospel” that links wealth and divine favor.

Feminists and other activists like to say that the personal is political. But, for better or for worse, the theological is political, too.

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