Democracy Lab

The Heretical Pope Francis vs. Rush Limbaugh

When a radical pope says it's time we stopped treating capitalism like it's a religion, American conservatives get preachy.

Wow. This pope really is good at getting people riled up. A few days ago, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church issued a 224-page document (an "apostolic exhortation," to be precise) that laid out some of his thoughts on how the church should conduct itself in the modern world. It's a thoroughly religious document. But a few of his observations have touched off gales of indignation.

Most of the aggravation has to do with the pope's criticism of what he calls "the new idolatry of money." In his text he assails the problem of inequality, asks that we pay greater attention to the needs of the poor, and attacks the idea that the urge to accumulate wealth is an end unto itself. Sure, the bible has a lot of harsh things to say about the wanton rich: "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotten and your garments have become moth-eaten.... You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter." And so on.

But Francis is going straight after Milton Friedman: Few of his remarks have attracted greater attention, for example, than the one where he criticized the notion that "trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world."

Nowhere in the document does he mention specific policies to counter these problems. He doesn't call for increased taxation of the rich. (The word "tax" occurs only once in the document, in a passage that criticizes tax evasion and corruption.) He doesn't sing the praises of collectivism. He doesn't attack the principle of private property, nor does he advocate public ownership of the means of production.

It's worth noting that this pope has a long track record of opposing liberation theologists in his homeland of Argentina. Still, I guess it's theoretically possible that the pope really is a closet Maoist. After all, he does say (in one of my favorite passages): "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security."

That's pretty subversive stuff. But the point here is that he doesn't actually offer up specific policy proposals to cure the problems he's describing. That's because he's analyzing a spiritual crisis. He's not outlining programs. He's describing a malaise that he sees in the world and challenging us to fix it.

But who cares? Why would anyone actually trouble to read what the guy is saying? It turns out that it's much more satisfying to scold the pope for wading into such controversial waters. It turns out there are plenty of red-blooded (mostly American) men out there who are keen to defend capitalism's honor against even the slightest of slights.

Take, for example, Louis Woodhill, a commentator for Forbes magazine. Woodhill works himself into a tremendous lather over the pope's musings. Francis, he writes, "has lent the prestige of the Catholic Church to leftist/socialist whining about the 'new tyranny' of 'inequality,' 'exclusion,' and 'marginalization.'" Woodhill is appalled. How dare the pope claim that such things exist! If there are poor people in the world, it's their own damned fault.

Or perhaps the Vatican itself is to blame. After all, Woodhill explains, the world suffered from low economic growth during the 1,500 years or so when the church played a major political role in the life of Europe. Luckily, though, the Reformation came along, and self-starting Protestant culture liberated us from the scourge of Jesuitical socialism. Given this record of poor economic management by the church, Woodhill contends, the pope should hold his tongue.

The conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, America's premier political entertainer, was keen to pile on (though not quite so ingenious in his arguments). He was especially upset by this part of the pope's critique: "The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle. They fail to move us."

This sounds pretty keenly observed to me. But Limbaugh just couldn't bear it: "That's going way beyond matters that are ethical," he spluttered. "This is almost a statement about who should control financial markets. He says that the global economy needs government control."

Well, no. Actually, Francis doesn't say anything of the kind. Instead he's exhorting us (a pronoun that expressly includes politicians and world leaders) to look closely at our own behavior and its consequences. That's precisely why his text is an "exhortation," a rumination on issues of justice and charity, not a white paper from some Washington think tank. Francis is inspired by the radical message of Jesus: "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise."

Does this sort of thinking make Christ a proto-socialist? I'm not sure the question makes much sense, to be honest. For Limbaugh, though, it's a clear case: Pope Francis is a "Marxist." Just for good measure, he draws a stark contrast between Francis and Pope John Paul II, who stared down the Soviet Union and made a signal contribution to the collapse of communism. John Paul II, in this reading, was the ultimate Cold Warrior, a man at the opposite end of the spectrum from this sentimental, pinko Francis.

Except that he wasn't. Here's a sample from John Paul II's own writings in 1991. "The Marxist solution has failed," he noted. And yet, he continued: "Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces."

That bit about blindly trusting the market sounds to me like vintage Pope Francis. Those who believe in the panacea of trickle-down economics express, he says, "a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

Francis, in short, isn't saying that capitalism is inherently bad. What he's saying is that we shouldn't fetishize it. We shouldn't treat it as if it's beyond reproach, something that we can't even dare to change. "We have created new idols," he says at one point. "The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose." Elsewhere, he worries about the "interests of a deified market."

I think he's right to warn about this -- and his American conservative critics are the proof. For them, the rightness of "unfettered capitalism" is an article of faith. Their adherence to the free enterprise system has become a new, secular religion, and they just can't bear the idea that someone with the pope's spiritual authority would dare to question it. The pope, to them, is quite simply a heretic. In such minds, the very notion that capitalism could do with reform -- that we should make capitalism work for us, rather than the other way around -- is blasphemy. "The problem with modern capitalism -- a problem that escaped the scrutiny of His Holiness -- is not too much freedom, but too little," as another of the pope's American critics intoned.

Really? I wonder how many other people in the world will agree?

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Ukraine's Hostage Crisis

How one woman's fate is derailing Ukraine's European dream.

Homer sang of Helen of Troy, the woman whose "face launched a thousand ships." This week it's time to write, somewhat more modestly, of another woman -- a flamboyant politician by the name of Yulia Tymoshenko, who played a starring role in Ukraine's storied Orange Revolution a few years ago. Now her fate seems to be determining whether her country's 46 million people take a historic step closer to Europe or slide back into the embrace of the Kremlin.

Next week a group of high-ranking politicians from the European Union and Eastern Europe will be meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to decide on the prospects of several countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. The small republics of Moldova and Georgia both have good chances of signing agreements with the European Union that will open up paths to expanded trade and travel. That's because both countries have gone a long way toward demonstrating their respect for European values of tolerance, freedom, and the rule of law.

Moscow won't be happy to see these two countries orient themselves to the West -- especially Georgia, which occupies a strategically sensitive spot between Europe and resource-rich Central Asia. But Vladimir Putin and his friends in Moscow undoubtedly know that there's little they can really do to frustrate the European dreams of these smaller countries. Despite intense economic (and military) pressure from Russia, neither Georgia nor Moldova has shown much inclination to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, a rival bloc that embodies Putin's effort to revive the old USSR (and, along with it, Russia's dream of regional dominance).

But Georgia and Moldova, whose combined population is about the same as London's, aren't really the headliners at Vilnius. That role belongs to Ukraine, the giant stepchild of European politics. Ukraine, too, was also supposed to sign some far-reaching documents at next week's Vilnius summit. That's because its population of 46 million (about the same as Spain's) and its considerable human and natural resources make Ukraine a potentially attractive member of the European family. At the same time, though, Ukraine is a monumental mess -- to an extent that would make it hard to deal with even under normal circumstances.

And circumstances are far from normal. Ukraine is a country of myriad problems. Strictly speaking it's a democracy, since it does have regular competitive elections, a relative degree of media freedom, and a surprisingly vibrant civil society. Yet these pluses are more often than not obscured by entrenched corruption, the nefarious doings of organized crime groups and politically connected business tycoons, and the still-powerful security service, which traces its ancestry straight back to the old Soviet KGB. At the top of it all sits Viktor Yanukovych, an elected president who tends to act more like an entitled monarch.

Yanukovych never tires of repeating his desire to see Ukraine move closer to Europe. Yet he's probably done more than anyone else to complicate his country's progress toward that goal. Since he became president in 2010, Yanukovych has systematically undercut the rule of law. He's pressured the courts and the media, engaged in parliamentary strong-arm tactics, and exacerbated the country's oligarchic system by rewarding his cronies with vast economic privileges. Meanwhile, he's done almost nothing to dry out the morass of corruption.

Yanukovych doesn't necessarily see it that way, of course. He would argue that he's set a positive signal against sleaze by arresting several leading politicians on corruption charges. The problem is that the politicians in question also happen to be his main political opponents. One of them, Yulia Tymoshenko, is the leader of the Fatherland Party, the core of the opposition alliance that campaigned against Yanukovych in the presidential election three years ago and lost. Her fiery rhetoric and trademark wraparound braid (see photo above) have made her Ukraine's most recognizable political figure -- even despite the fact that she's been in jail since October 2011.

The European Union doesn't accept Yanukovych's argument that Tymoshenko simply ran afoul of the law. Brussels says that she's a victim of "selective justice," jailed less for her alleged abuses of power than for her role as the leader of the opposition. Few serious observers of Ukrainian politics would probably disagree with that (though those who know Ukraine well wonder whether she's entirely above reproach, given her past high-ranking position in the notoriously corrupt natural gas sector and her considerable personal wealth).

The EU has made Ukraine's invitation to sign the two documents on offer at Vilnius -- a mainly political "Association Agreement" as well as a "deep and comprehensive" agreement on trade -- conditional on Tymoshenko's release (preferably under the guise of allowing her to travel to the West for medical treatment). Some EU governments insist that she should be granted a full-blown pardon, which Yanukovych has persistently refused to grant, since that might allow her a political comeback that could threaten his own hold on power. Given the enormous focus on her role, it's small wonder that many observers (including Tymoshenko herself) have referred to her as a "hostage."

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian parliament deliberated over a proposed law that would have allowed for Tymoshenko, who's suffered from ill health during her imprisonment, to seek medical treatment abroad. The deputies voted "no" -- effectively quashing a compromise that would have allowed Ukraine to sign the agreement in Vilnius. No one should have any doubts that the lawmakers who scotched the bill were following the preferences of their president. Yanukovych's Party of Regions dominates parliament, and its members uniformly voted for keeping Tymoshenko in jail. EU emissary, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski thereupon announced that the deal was off. The Ukrainian parliament has thus effectively derailed Ukraine from its European track.

This is a tragedy. There's no question that Ukraine's citizens would be better off by embracing the EU -- which is probably why a majority of Ukrainians favor closer ties with Europe. About as much of Ukraine's trade now goes to Europe as it does to Russia. Every Ukrainian government for the past 15 years has made closer ties with Europe a priority. All this demonstrates that many Ukrainians understand that having incentives to live up to EU norms can only improve governance and reduce corruption at home.

Russia's reaction to this mess is noteworthy. Since the Ukrainian parliamentary vote Putin has accused the European Union of "pressuring" and "blackmailing" the Ukrainians with its demands. This is a cynical inversion of the actual state of affairs. If anything, Europe has "pressured" Ukraine merely to live up to the high standards of European law.

The Russians, by contrast, have made no secret of their willingness to hit Ukraine with every sanction they can muster in the event that Kiev should sign the Vilnius agreement. Echoing similar actions against other countries that seeking intensifed relations with Europe, Moscow has imposed a harsh customs regime on Ukrainian imports that could cost Kiev as much as $2.5 billion in losses by the end of the year. A Russian minister has spoken openly of supporting separatists in the Russian-majority eastern provinces of Ukraine. Russian operatives have organized a campaign that claims that closer EU ties will bring same-sex marriage to Ukraine, a policy opposed by a majority of Ukrainians. Yanukovych has held at least three closed-door meetings with Putin in recent weeks, which have put a notable damper on the Ukrainian president's pro-Europe zeal. (Among other things Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, which Moscow has used in the past as a lever for enforcing its will. One can only imagine that Putin made a point of wielding that threat again.)

Given such pressure, Ukraine might have found other excuses for not signing the deal in Vilnius. Yet it's the Tymoshenko issue that has given Europe's opponents in Kiev a perfect excuse for sabotaging the agreement. Europe's leaders certainly deserve praise for demonstrating their high standards of adherence to human rights by elevating Tymoshenko's cause to such prominence. But has turning her case into a deal-breaker really helped the ideals such advocacy was designed to advance? If Ukraine slips back into Russia's embrace as a result, 46 million people who might have otherwise seen a notable improvement in governance and human rights will find their hopes betrayed. (This is precisely why Tymoshenko herself has said that her cause should not be used to thwart closer ties with Europe.)

And yes, I know. The likelihood that Ukraine will actually join the EU -- particularly at a time when Europeans are still struggling to overcome their own economic malaise -- is small. Skeptics point out that Turkey, another big European aspirant with imperfect democratic institutions, signed its own Association Agreement back in 1963, and its membership has yet to materialize.

Yet the case of Turkey also demonstrates how taking the desire to join Europe seriously can prove beneficial in itself. Over the past few years Turkey has done a great deal to make its economy Europe-compatible, fueling dramatic growth, and has taken enormous steps to reform governance, reducing corruption and promoting the rule of law. No one would argue that the situation in Turkey is flawless -- but compare it to where the country was 10 years ago and it's very hard to make a case for a return to the past.

Ukraine deserves a similar chance. Contrary to a lot of the reporting this week, Kiev's decision doesn't mean an end to Ukraine's European prospects. There will still be options for helping Ukraine to move in the direction that's really conducive to its interests. The West needs to do everything it can to make that happen.