WHO is the politician to watch in 2014? Answer: Pope Francis, aka George Mario Bergoglio, 266th head of the Church of Rome with its 1.2 billion members. Marxists talk about a Bonapartist figure: an individual able to command events when the opposing class forces normally shaping history are in temporary equilibrium. Enter unexpectedly from stage left the former nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who last year was elevated to the Papacy on the retirement of Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus).
I am an atheist and so always fascinated by how God intervenes in history. Bergoglio may have no divisions (bar a few hundred Swiss Guard) but he has influence. He arrives in office at a time when global capitalism is going through an existential crisis. If you think George Osborne’s pathetic mini housing boom means the good times are back, forget it. Southern Europe is on the verge of deflationary anarchy. China is a banking crisis waiting to happen. In the west, inequality between plutocratic rich and working poor threatens to undermine support for free market capitalism. Something’s got to give.
Amazingly for such extraordinary times there is a dire shortage of revolutionaries offering revolutionary solutions. The pathetic anti-capitalist left in Europe is noticeable by its absence. All the social democratic mainstream has to offer – if Labour’s Ed Balls is anything to go by – is to take away the winter fuel allowance from millionaires. Golly gosh!
Into this leadership vacuum strides Pope Francis, fresh from the slums of South America where populism is the order of the day. Bergoglio preaches – and, God forbid, practises – the humility of the first St Francis, declaring the need for a “church which is poor and for the poor”. Now speaking as an atheist, I’m sure George Bergoglio is much as other men. I’m sure his Jesuit training has made him a smart operator when it comes to using symbolism. I’m sure there is much to say about his time as a senior cleric during the fascist Argentine junta.
But here’s the rub: Pope Francis has decided personally – because that’s what Popes can do – to reset the political agenda of the Catholic Church towards intervening in the global economic crisis and its underlying social inequalities. He has lit the blue touch paper and soon a political rocket is going to go off. That does not mean Bergoglio has no spiritual agenda as well – he obviously sees the world in spiritual terms. But it does mean he has reversed the agenda of his Austrian predecessor. Ratzinger denounced “faith in progress” preached by the French Revolution and communism. Bergoglio, on the other hand, has opted to take the Church on the offensive – inside and outside the Vatican. When the first thing you prioritise is a Church “for the poor” you are making a revolutionary statement. The best Ed Miliband can do is talk elliptically about “the squeezed middle”.
A waspish Cardinal Dolan of New York told American television that Francis’s left-wing “style” alters nothing of “substance”. Wrong. Listen to Pope Francis denounce contemporary capitalism: “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule. Inequality eventually engenders a violence.” The doyen of the America Tea Party right, radio loudmouth Rush Limbaugh, called this utterance “pure Marxism”. Actually, that’s near enough.
But does this mean that Liberation Theology is taking over the Vatican? Liberation Theology is a term coined by Peruvian Catholic cleric Gustavo Merino for a radical interpretation of Christianity that emerged in Latin America in the 1960s, prioritising social action against extreme poverty. The movement rejected any barrier between religion and politics, with some young priests turning to guerrilla warfare. Polish Pope John-Paul II, with Ratzinger as his enforcer, branded Liberation Theology a heresy.
Bergoglio is on record as formally rejecting Liberation Theology, but actions speak louder than words. One of his first moves on becoming Pope was to invite Gustavo Gutiérrez to Rome to celebrate mass. Francis has also restarted the beatification process for Oscar Romero, the radical Archbishop of El Salvador who was gunned down by death squads in March 1980 while celebrating mass.
Speaking at a meeting of newly-consecrated bishops last September, Bergoglio denounced the “psychology of princes” (ie Vatican insiders). He has set up a new, eight-man advisory council of cardinals with two members from Latin America. Included is the aptly named Archbishop of Munich, Reinhard Marx. A sociologist, Marx wrote a book after the 2008 financial crisis entitled (with a wink) Das Kapital: A Plea for Man. Marx is orthodox in theology but has denounced the German-led austerity programme in the eurozone. That won him the appellation of “Red Cardinal”.
There are risks in Bergoglio’s strategy. His moves to decentralise church governance and consult the laity on moral attitudes could encourage (if unwittingly) centrifugal forces in Catholicism, factional and theological. His removal of a conservative American cardinal from a key Vatican committee, never mind his criticism of the free market, sets Francis at odds with the US hierarchy that provides the Vatican with a disproportionate amount of its income.
Bergoglio may have no direct political power but the more he speaks out the more he will embolden others to act. He has already scheduled a visit to the West Bank in May – watch out for diplomatic fireworks. Another outcome of the new “red” papacy will be to encourage mainstream politicians to be bolder in reforming capitalism.
This month, Francis will announce his first new cardinals. Rumours are rife he might appoint Mary McAleese, former Irish president, as the first-ever woman cardinal (technically cardinals don’t need to be priests). That sounds far fetched but it is indicative of the radical expectations the new Pope is creating.