The Pope has a new document out. In it, he attacks the ‘economy of exclusion’, the ‘new idolatry of money’, a ‘financial system that rules rather than serves’, and ‘the inequality that spawns violence’. In political terms, this places him way to the left of Ireland’s political establishment, and turns John Bruton into Mr Fascist Potato Head, which is what he is.
The phenomenon of fascism is usually understood, from a critical standpoint, as a production internal to capitalism. The usual way of looking at things has it that Irish society was subject to the domination and abuses of a religious empire but it is now a freer and more prosperous society after shucking off the oppressive grip of the Church, even if some problems remain. Well, what if this way of looking at things is wrong? What if the punitive and abusive Church was an interior production of Ireland’s political economy, and, when there was no longer any need for it, once there was no danger that communism might take hold since people had sufficiently internalised capitalist values, its overt coercive power and influence and its centrality to social life became surplus to requirements?
I’m not suggesting the Church has left the scene in Ireland. On the contrary: many of Ireland’s private schools are run by religious orders. Most of its schools are owned by the Catholic Church. Hospitals that receive public funding are owned by Catholic religious orders. The founders of private hospitals are the patrons of Catholic think-tanks that enjoy substantial prominence in media as representative of practising Catholics. Public broadcasting still transmits the Angelus at 12 and 6pm every day. A few years ago, the Vatican produced a weird slab of glory to recognise the contribution from a group of very wealthy Irish people in Irish society to the upkeep of its art collection. These were people who got rich on the back of a property bubble and the privatisation of public assets. See here:
What you no longer get is the moral policing function, the intrusion into matters of extra-marital sex and contraception. You might say abortion is an exception to this, a demonstration of the Church’s continued power. I think it depends what you mean by the Church. True, Ireland still has draconian abortion laws, and there is still trenchant opposition to affording women anything that might approximate any kind of bodily autonomy when it comes to going through pregnancy and childbirth. But is this opposition to abortion actually Catholic? It’s true that many of the most prominent voices in favour of maintaining Ireland’s prohibition on abortion, from the Taoiseach to clergy to the spokespersons for campaign groups profess a Catholic faith. But there is also deep opposition to abortion in the North of Ireland among various Protestant denominations, and this isn’t down to obedience to teaching from Rome.
‘Get your rosaries off my ovaries’ is a frequent slogan you see among pro choice campaigners. What I’m wondering is whether this kind of social oppression is best recognised in terms of religious symbols and practices. Are the religious symbols and practices not just there to provide a cover and a justification for oppression?
To use an obvious example: the figure of the crucified Christ is, historically, a symbol of witness in the face of political oppression and torture. Giles Fraser says that the ‘cross spoke of Roman power in just the way Black Hawk helicopters speak today of US power.’ But it can also be turned into a symbol of domination and oppression. After the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s forces, who had defeated the Republican side with the aid of Hitler and Mussolini, created the Valley of the Fallen, a monument featuring a 500ft high cross, built with the slave labour of the losing side. As is often noted, for every political opponent murdered by Mussolini, Franco murdered 10,000. What this tells us is there may be nothing inherently oppressive or emancipatory about this or that religious symbol or text or rite, but that their interpretation, and the actions arising from that interpretation, are part of a broader struggle among contending social forces.
It makes sense for any ruling power to appropriate the symbols and language of its subjects, all the better to strengthen ideological domination. Wolves dress up as grandmothers. It is hard to think of a more trenchant artistic opponent of Empire than William Blake. But his communist utopian poem Jerusalem was appropriated, first as a hymn to celebrate British imperial expansion in Palestine, and then, at the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton, as a celebration of monarchy and the master race. Or even the Irish Tricolour, once a symbol associated primarily with the labour and women’s movements in Ireland, now the backdrop that confers gravitas on any number of anti-labour and anti-women politicians. Add your own example, if you like. Such ideological domination is one of the key themes in the Gospels. That hasn’t prevented the New Testament being used for all kind of nefarious forms of ideological domination. One egregious example would be the teaching that the Jews killed Jesus.
Which brings me back to the Pope’s new publication. You might say that there’s nothing contained in the document that was not already in Catholic teaching. You could be right, I’ve no idea. But there are particular emphases that should be of interest even to people who have no intention of getting washed in the blood of the lamb. Let me give an example. The Pope restates Church teaching on abortion, but in the following terms:
we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, ‘abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty’.
So what, says you. The fact he recognises the reasons why a woman might want an abortion doesn’t bring the Church any closer to respecting bodily autonomy for women. Well, not exactly. But he does recognise factors in a woman wanting to get an abortion. The interesting part is that he emphasises, elsewhere in the document, that these factors are social factors:
‘The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed’
‘as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. …Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.’
So, to be plain, if you are opposed to abortion because it is the taking of human life, for the very same reason you must also be opposed to exclusion and inequality, because ‘such an economy kills’. Given the fact that many of the most prominent anti-abortion advocates in Ireland are also free marketeers, the Pope is recognising the responsibility of such people in forcing women into circumstances where they feel compelled to seek an abortion.
I think this is quite a positive development. The Pope himself thinks that all those Fine Gael backbenchers and right wing Catholics who emoted so forcefully about the sacredness of human life, but who also defend ‘ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation’, the ‘new tyranny’, are compelling women to seek abortions, on account of the unequal society they are creating.
Why is the Pope saying such things? Are there ulterior motives involved? Is he trying to rebrand a thoroughly irredeemable institution? My answer to all these things is: who cares? I’m speculating here, but I think that given the fact Jorge Bergoglio is from Latin America and is therefore sensitive to the strength of popular left-wing social movements and governments there, and also the fact that these movements and governments are not at all hostile to religion (Hugo Chávez, for instance, frequently cited his Christian faith and famously called Jesus ‘the first socialist’), has some bearing on the forcefulness of the critique of capitalism.
And in so far as he is saying such things, I say: good! Only an idiot would think that approving of what the Pope is saying amounts to defence of an absolute monarchy that marginalises women and in many places helps secure the domination of the rich. Only an idiot would think approving of such things means you want the Pope as a spearhead for a global movement against capitalism.
The fact the Pope is saying such things with such emphasis are signs of genuine cracks in the global capitalist system. The question is how to open them up even further. In Ireland, where many people’s moral imagination -even those who are no longer religious- is still shaped by the teachings of an Irish Catholic Church that on the whole has always sucked up to the rich and oppressed on their behalf, I say the Pope’s stated anti-capitalism should be put to good use.