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Analysis
Papal voice on economic stage

Papal voice on economic stage

Francis' assault on 'oppressive lending'

by David Smith

Mon 28 Sep 2015

Pope Francis, during his six-day visit to the US that ended on Sunday, appeared to be basking in a tidal wave of adulation bordering on adoration. In discussing economics, he ran into the no-holds barred culture of the ‘American way’ – but only the deaf or delusional could imagine that the pontiff was espousing free market capitalism or economic globalisation.

As he held Washington and New York spellbound, Francis’ deft juggling of spirituality, politics and economics, speaks to his intent – to be a major player on the global stage on central issues of world economics. On the evidence of his American journey, he has succeeded like no other before him.

This Pope is no newcomer to political combat. In the years before his election, he was locked in a near-permanent standoff of ideas with presidents of his native Argentina. There is no doubt where he stands: on the side of the debtors, the downtrodden and the economically repressed.

His speech at the United Nations summed it up. He aimed not directly at the World Bank, or the IMF, but at the global system. ‘The international financial agencies should care for the sustainable development of countries and must ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending regimes,’ he argued, to rapturous applause from the African and Latin American delegations. That applause allowed him to go deeper: ‘Oppressive lending regimes which, far from promoting progress, subject people to greater poverty, exclusion, and dependence.’

Not everyone agrees. President Barack Obama went to the airport to greet him, an extraordinary gesture designed to show gratitude for his mediation in rapprochement with Cuba. Yet on the same day the Wall Street Journal lamented the Pope’s embrace of ‘the progressive political agenda of income redistribution.’

Right-wing commentator George Will, not a man to deal in ambiguities, defined the Pope’s economic thinking as ‘impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary, ideas that would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak…Americans cannot simultaneously honour him and celebrate our nation’s premises.’

Before the US Congress, Francis chose his language and tone carefully. This was mild indeed for a man who has denounced unfettered capitalism in the past. ‘Business is a noble vocation,’ he said, to quiet applause from the Republicans on Capitol Hill. ‘But it must serve the common good, of shared prosperity and respect for the environment.’ Democrats loved that.

The meat of his Washington message lay in his plea for co-operation among mankind, a long way from the day-to-day rancour that typifies the Congress. ‘Such co-operation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new forms of slavery, born of grave injustice which can be overcome only by new policies and new forms of social inclusion.’

And then there was the sentence he omitted from his speech, only for the official transcript to show us what he was supposed to say: ‘If politics must truly be at the service of the human being, it follows that politics cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.’ That line, and the thinking behind it, became the talking-point as he flew to New York and the United Nations.

Then at the UN, before the General Assembly, speaking in his native Spanish, the Pope let his message rip. Politics and economics, he argued, had a sacred duty to humanity: ‘Above and beyond our plans and programmes, we are dealing with men and women who live, struggle, and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.’

He spoke not of the minimum wage, but a minimum standard of living. ‘This absolute minimum has three names, lodging, labour, land...lodging, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water.’

The economy of ‘exclusion’ has been the clarion call of this papacy so far, ‘a complete denial of the human fraternity’ as he defined it. ‘I didn’t hear from him an alternative philosophy of politics and economics,’ to quote one veteran Republican Congressman. ‘What I did hear was a moral obligation to the poor and disadvantaged, and it’s on that fundamental policy level he got his message through.’

In New York, where this week world leaders will speak at a summit on the anti-poverty, pro-development campaign started at the turn of the millennium, there is real hope that the Pope has set the stage for progress. ‘Francis called all of us at the UN to account,’ according to a leading adviser to the Secretary-General. ‘But his economic agenda is clear. Economic inclusion, not exclusion. The globalisation of care, not indifference. And he has brought back to the number one issue: poverty. Francis articulates that in a way no other can.’

David Smith, OMFIF Advisory Board Member, a former White House correspondent, represented the UN Secretary-General in the Americas 2004-14.

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