In fact, the weight of the Church’s authority has swung rather dramatically away from the markets and toward the market-goers. Pope Francis is opening the fortress of the Church to the enemy at the gates—the down-trodden and the oppressed.
More than that even, the Pope is throwing open the history books and reading the past with the lens of honesty and truth. In John Calvin’s mind, if you were down-trodden and oppressed, you should blame yourself. The Church in Rome was of similar mind.
Pope Francis, last week, was in a three-country tour of South America. While in Bolivia during his week-long swing visit, he began to speak about a subject long-avoided by the Church: colonialism. Last Thursday, Francis was speaking to a congregation of workers and fired a broadside against European colonialism and the complicit role of the Church.
He was daringly honest and forthcoming.
"Some may rightly say, 'When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church,'" said Francis. "I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God," according to the New York Times.
And there it was. The confession of “grave sins” committed in the name of God—the very charge laid at religion’s doorstep by atheists and agnostics everywhere. But Pope Francis did not merely confess.
"I humbly ask forgiveness," the Pope added, speaking of the sins of the church and the crimes committed against native populations during the "so-called conquest of America."
As an historian, colonialism—and its Gorgon-sister slavery—are the blights that cannot be erased from the human record and that still have a strangle-hold on those who suffered under them…no matter how many generations may pass.
God and Gold were the motivations for the impoverishment of developing countries by the world economic order of 15th-16th century Europe and “Christianity.” The Church wanted to convert more “souls” and the economic powers wanted the gold and silver that was so plentiful. But let’s be honest, they all wanted the gold and silver.
And before we congratulate ourselves on our tenderness towards indigenous peoples nowadays, remember what is still happening in Africa. No longer in the name of God, these days the economic powers unabashedly plunder the diamonds, the rubies, the copper, the uranium…
Pope Francis has not just confessed and asked for forgiveness, he has joined the other side. He has urged the poor to change the world economic order. He has denounced the “new colonialism” by markets and even continental unions that impose austerity programs.
Think of Greece and the back-breaking austerity demanded by Germany’s Angela Merkel. Albrecht Ritschl of the London School of Economics calls Merkel’s demands on Greece “hypocrisy” since Germany has never paid off its debts. Europe is treating Greece as a colony of the European Union.
Pope Francis has today’s Greece in mind also as he is calling for the poor to have the “sacred rights” of labor, lodging and land.
In one of the longest, most passionate and all-encompassing speeches of his pontificate, the Argentine-born pope used his visit to Bolivia to ask forgiveness for the sins committed by the Roman Catholic Church in its treatment of Native Americans during what he called the “so-called conquest of America”.
Then Pope Francis brought it all into the present. “The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called ‘the dung of the devil.’ An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”
Since his election in 2013, the first pope from Latin America has often spoken out in defense of the poor and against unrestricted capitalism but this speech in Santa Cruz was the most comprehensive to date on the issues he has championed. Francis’ previous attacks on capitalism have prompted stiff criticism from politicians and commentators in the United States, where he is due to visit in September.
But, it must be remembered, Pope Francis is not calling for the dismemberment of capitalism, he is calling for restrictions on capitalism. In other words, in a global economy wherein the poor and oppressed are crushed by the unbridled pursuit of gain at the expense of others, we must remember that capital is to serve us. We are not called to serve mammon.