A Progressive Pope or Greenwashing the Vatican?

Paul Jay asks Chris Hedges if the Pope’s rhetoric on climate change and capitalism is a positive force or a dangerous illusion

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network, and welcome to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay.

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently they reject the right of states charged with vigilance for the common good to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies, and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power.

To all of this, add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possession knows no limits. And in the system which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market which becomes the only rule.

Well, that could have been written by our next guest. But actually it was written by Pope Francis in 2013. Now joining us is our next guest in the studio, Chris Hedges. Thanks for joining us, Chris.

CHRIS HEDGES: Thank you.

JAY: So those are powerful words. A French reporter recently asked the pope whether he was really a European social democrat, and the pope kind of laughed, saying, well, don’t put me in a box. But in fact, this is in the tradition of actually some of the more, you could say more militant European social democrat language. But most of today’s European social democrats wouldn’t even go as far as the pope did. On the other hand, the Vatican is a very important institution of modern global capitalism. We haven’t seen the Vatican divesting from its investments in green-opposing industries, I guess in carbon-emitting industries and so on.

But is the rhetoric, just the fact it’s coming from the pope, something that helps progressive forces in the world?

HEDGES: Yes, because it acknowledges reality. And unfortunately the Catholic church, going back to the long tenure of John Paul II, pushed out thousands of vocations, of priests, sisters, brothers, layworkers, who acknowledged the truth about global income disparity and the rapacious nature of capitalism, especially in the developing world. And by doing so they empowered an extremely right-wing elite centered around groups like Opus Dei, which saw even the acknowledgement of that reality as a kind of heresy. So what the pope is doing is he is shifting the church back onto a ground where at least it speaks about the reality that most–and remember, the largest growing segment of Catholics in the United States are Hispanic–that the largest constituency or certainly a very large constituency of the Catholic church faces every day. And that is an important step.

However, he has not stood up and offered an alternative. He has named the excesses and distortions of unfettered capitalism and the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, but neither he nor the church has said what should take its place.

JAY: Now he’s speaking, first of all, to his own flock, which is rather big still. Apparently about 1.2 billion people, half of all Christians on the planet. But is he playing a role in the sense that it’s good for the Catholic church to sound this way. The institution itself needs to be revived, particularly in Latin America, which has a real leftward turn. There’s been a lot of talk how he went to Cuba and how it validates the Castros and so on. But I think you could actually argue it the other way. In terms of the church’s need to validate itself in Latin America, it’s good for him to get validated by the Castros.

And that, in a sense it’s a kind of greenwashing. Like, you know, he made a very strong statement on the environment when he came to the White House. With President Obama was talking about the need for real environmental policy. But if you don’t go that next step that you’re talking about, what’s the alternative, if you actually don’t talk about who owns stuff and who has power, then you wind up–do you wind up with what is essentially classical European social democracy, and you can ask the Greeks how that’s working for them?

HEDGES: Yes. I mean, you know, I think in many ways as pope and as an institution they’re acknowledging this reality rather late, given what neoliberal economics have done in terms of reconfiguring the global economy into virtually a form of neofeudalism. So we’re very, very far down the road. And somehow not to acknowledge this reality would be, I think–you know, continue to keep the hierarchy of the church in what is in essence a non-reality-based worldview.

So it is a good thing, yes, without question that the pope is acknowledging the effects of climate change, is acknowledging the effects of neoliberal economics and globalization. But as I said before, acknowledging it at this point is simply acquiescing to a reality that most of the members of the Catholic church already know.

JAY: I’m somewhat playing devil’s advocate here, because I’m still a little bit on the fence about how to assess, in the end is this kind of language, rhetoric positive or not. But he sits next to President Obama. President Obama, in a recent article you wrote, should actually be charged with crimes after–.

HEDGES: Preemptive–that’s not even, I mean, preemptive war under post-Nuremberg laws is a criminal act of aggression.

JAY: And also is not actually going and charging President Bush and Vice President Cheney is actually a violation of international law.

HEDGES: [Yes.]

JAY: But the pope lauds President Obama’s environmental policy, which is–.

HEDGES: Well, which is horrible. I mean, he has a horrible–he just opened up the Arctic for summer drilling. He had the whole Atlantic coast, you know, public lands. He drills like Sarah Palin. He’s proved utterly ineffectual to address climate change. And has, you know, kind of held off on the Keystone XL pipeline, but his environmental record is appalling.

JAY: And so he doesn’t–I understand the diplomacy of all this and the strategy of it, but I guess in some ways it goes back to this issue, you know, maybe we have to assess this. There’s two different kinds of politics going on. There’s sort of intra-elite politics where you have a force within the elite is at least not as fascistic and sociopathic as another force. And if the pope’s words somehow weaken the far, the more sociopathic group, that’s a good thing.

On the other hand if it creates illusions that there’s such a thing as this system without the things the pope is critiquing, that’s kind of an illusion. That that–you know, if capitalism was ever capable of reforms that would get to what the pope is talking about without this kind of tyranny and speculation and exaggerations, if that was ever possible and I don’t know that it was, it’s certainly not possible now.

HEDGES: Well, he comes out of that traditional Franciscan ethos, which is the closer you are to the poor the closer you are to God. And that is a particular theological–he is a Jesuit, but that is a particular theological strain within the Catholic church, and I think that very much describes where he’s coming from.

So he’s reading between the lines, he’s asking for a kinder, gentler system for people to take into account the suffering that global capitalism has inflicted, lifting up the voices of the poor. But in the end as far as I can tell, it’s about charity. It’s not about justice. And that’s how he can stand next to Obama. He’s not–he’s, you know, even in the passage you read he’s critiquing the excesses of the system, and nowhere does he critique the system itself. And you’re exactly right, there is–there are no impediments, internal or external, now within global capitalism for it to reform itself. In fact, of course, things are getting worse. We are moving into this kind of oligarchic domain where two-thirds of the country, including in the United States, are hanging on by their fingertips.

So that’s on the one hand, he has moved the church back into the realm of reality, which I think is a good thing. But I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination he can be called a radical.

JAY: The–I’m not, I agree with you. I don’t think–maybe in terms of Catholic politics it could be called sort of radical.

HEDGES: Well, not really, because you have all sorts of–you do have strong–.

JAY: So Vatican politics, then.

HEDGES: Yeah. Well, not–but I mean, you have the whole liberation theology movement that was very explicit about–.

JAY: Yeah. But it was always at odds with the Vatican.

HEDGES: Well, once John Paul–I mean, you had Vatican II and reforms. And I mean, up until John Paul, who had this kind of phobia about communism. And then Ratzinger, who eventually became Pope Benedict, was John Paul’s kind of hatchet man. And I was in Latin America at the time that the church was carrying out these horrific internal purges. So any Catholic layperson or sister or priest or brother who was working in a marginal community was immediately suspect and often pushed out of the church.

And that did tremendous damage to the church, because it really thrust the church hierarchy into the very tight embrace of the elites themselves, which did great damage to the credibility of the church. And what he’s really doing is countering that distortion. Nevertheless, you know, vocations are a fraction–I mean, you have whole seminaries that my have one student, an aging priest population, four or five parishes–parishes are closing right and left. Four or five parishes that are sharing one 80-year-old priest. The Catholic church is in tremendous crisis on many levels. And I think this pope is aware of that crisis and recognizes that if the church doesn’t begin to speak in another language it will continue to become more and more anemic.

JAY: And marginalized. Now, it has to be of some positive value the numbers of people in the United States that still think climate change doesn’t even exist, or man-made climate change. The fact that he comes down so strongly on this, that has to have a positive effect in terms of the understanding of people on this issue.

HEDGES: Well, I’m not sure that you can have rational discussions with climate change deniers any more than you can have rational discussions with creationists.

JAY: I’m talking more ordinary people who are kind of influenced by various things, which I think a lot of people are. And hearing the pope come down so strongly, certainly on at least Catholics and maybe even other religious people, it might give them some pause to think about this.

HEDGES: Well, and it also highlights the importance of the issue, which I think is good.

JAY: It raises a question, as well. This language, as I said earlier, is kind of in the realm of kind of social democracy, which means can we get rid of the excesses of capitalism but you don’t have to actually challenge who owns stuff and change who owns stuff, and not really change who has power. And you’re saying this has a positive effect even though you can see all the negatives of this. Does that same analysis apply to, say, a Bernie Sanders, who essentially has social democratic rhetoric. He–same thing. I mean, Sanders doesn’t really question how things are owned in the United States. He’s not making proposals. Like, even on his proposals for infrastructure and investment it’s still mostly as far as we can tell about private-public partnerships. It’s not building out a public sector, which one would think is a more socialistic way to do it.

On the other hand, the rhetoric against the billionaire class, does it not have a positive effect in terms of public opinion in the same way the pope does?

HEDGES: No. Because–two reasons. One, of course, he’s working within the confines of the Democratic party and is himself–sits with the Democratic caucus, has seniority within the caucus, is in essence an unofficial member of the Democratic party. As Howard Dean has pointed out he votes with the Democrats 98 percent of the time. He has been the main obstacle to creating a third party within Vermont. So that’s the first problem. He’s a member of the Democratic establishment. He campaigned for Clinton in ’92, again in ’96. He campaigned for Obama. So if he was serious about taking on the billionaire class, he would take on the Democratic party. He’s not. That’s the first thing.

But the second thing, and here he would diverge from the pope, is that he is–he refuses to critique or attack empire, or the military-industrial complex, which is hollowing the country out, destroying our country from the inside out. He has voted for every military appropriations bill. He has voted slavishly for every pro-Israel bill and resolution that’s ever been passed through the Senate. And if we don’t confront the disease of empire and an arms industry that is now swallowing–I mean, the best estimates are about $1.6 or $1.7 trillion a year. I mean, officially it’s about 54 percent of the budget, about $600 million. But then they hide all sorts of military expenditures, the Veterans’ Affairs administration, the nuclear weapons industry and research. As well as all sorts of black budgets that go into military activities that we as citizens are not allowed to see.

And the pope is no friend of empire. I mean, even John Paul II was no friend of empire in terms–and Bernie Sanders in that sense, I think, has one more strike against him than the pope.

JAY: Well, but you could do a whole list of things about the pope if you want to go into his negative positions. I mean, certainly on social issues–. And go on and on.

HEDGES: On misogyny and–of course. But in terms of critiquing power he [said]–.

JAY: But he sits next to President Obama and he doesn’t say anything about President Obama’s participation in various wars and drone strikes.

HEDGES: No, but he’s–no, he doesn’t. But he’s not an active enabler of empire. Bernie Sanders is.

JAY: Because Bernie Sanders voted for–he voted against the Iraq war, you could give him that.

HEDGES: Well he had, you know, that’s about it. Because after that there wasn’t a military appropriations bill he didn’t sign on for.

JAY: The–but the Vatican, and I can’t say this pope has been out, he hasn’t perhaps had a war where he’s had to take that kind of position on. Although on the previous Iraq war I think the Vatican was against the invasion of Iraq and has taken some decent positions on some of these things. But then, so did Sanders. But if you don’t really come out and critique empire, I have not heard this pope critique empire. He critiques inequality.

HEDGES: He hasn’t. But–.

JAY: I’m not–I’m saying that you wind up with the pope of having a certain propaganda value, say, on climate change. Well, why doesn’t Sanders–Sanders is not going to win. We know that. So it winds up being is the words, is the rhetoric, is the arguments that people are hearing, does it have some positive effect on public opinion? Given everything you’ve said about him.

HEDGES: [Inaud.] because he’s appealing to widespread sentiments in the same way that Obama did in 2008. But he has promised that he will campaign on behalf of whoever the nominee is, and the system’s rigged, fixed. And if it’s not Hillary Clinton will be another anointed member of the Democratic establishment. And Sanders will play the role that Van Jones played in the last election which is, you know, we can’t have whoever the Republican nominee is. She may not be perfect, don’t be a purist, and he will funnel this energy back into a dead political system and we’re right back where we are. You cannot call yourself a socialist unless you’re an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist, and he’s neither.

JAY: And you think the pope is?

HEDGES: I think–we don’t know, because he hasn’t issued any statements. But traditionally the Vatican hierarchy has certainly not in any way been enthusiastic about American imperialism and at times has…

JAY: [Inaud.] the American church, certainly not.

HEDGES: Oh, without question.

JAY: With the support of the Vietnam war, and so on.

HEDGES: Yeah. But for instance, at the inception of the Iraq war, the Vatican was against the invasion. And I was speaking around the country about, you know, why we shouldn’t invade Iraq. And probably 25 percent of my speaking invitations came from Catholic colleges that had peace and justice studies. And the thing about a Catholic, unlike a Protestant, I myself come out of the Presbyterian tradition, is that there is a sense of a community beyond your borders. There is a kind of–Catholicism doesn’t lend itself as well to the kind of nationalism that is often endemic to Protestantism. And so yes, the Catholic hierarchy certainly was waving the flag, without question. And the pope comes out of Argentina, when the Catholic hierarchy was defending the dirty war, the disappearance of 30,000 Argentines by their own military and security forces. That’s common. But because–.

JAY: This particular pope has had some accusations against his participation.

HEDGES: Yes. Well he didn’t, he was very passive at a moment of horror for his country. But Catholics do have a sense that there are fellow co-believers who do not carry their passport. And I think that’s a kind of sign of health within the church and gives the church at least wider scope for a range of views

JAY: Do you think that some of the left, and I would include in this the Cuban government to some extent, are going a little too far in this praising of the pope? I can understand the positive elements of the things you’re saying. The thing I read off the top was quite powerful. And you know, he doesn’t say capitalist system. But at least as a critique it certainly is strongly anti-capitalist. I take your point, the alternative is not presented. But that’s a big deal, as we discussed earlier, that the alternative is not presented.

But some people are–the extent to which the pope is being embraced here without keeping in mind that there’s a side to the pope’s message which is just fight against greed, just the immoralism of capitalism. And in some ways it ideologically disarms people in terms of what needs to be done to actually do something about these ills.

HEDGES: Right. And you know, and it allows you to kind of read things into the pope that probably aren’t there. I mean, what he’s really presenting is very basic Christian theology against idolatry. I mean, that’s where it comes from. It’s against idols. And that’s been part of Christian theology since before Augustine.

JAY: And pretty good for rebuilding Vatican, Inc. Because if you want to keep the 1.2 billion members you’ve got and add to it you’re going to have to take a fairly progressive position these days.

HEDGES: Right. Well, it’s not even progressive. And I go back to he’s describing a reality that most Catholic believers endure and can articulate. And he’s simply articulating that reality. And that reconnects him to the church, which is important. But it doesn’t, you know, it also I think as you pointed out and as we saw in Cuba, it allows a lot of people to read things into this pope that I think are probably not there.

JAY: All right, thanks for joining us, Chris.

HEDGES: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on the Real News Network.

End

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