The visit of Pope Francis to the United States, speaking to both the US Congress and the UN General Assembly, placed the moral foundation of policy front and center in the public dialogue. It is important for the social movement to be based on values that show our moral and ethical character to put forward a positive vision for the future that will have widespread support.
Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air on multiple issues for the Catholic Church, but he has a challenge in being a moral spokesperson because the history of the Catholic Church is one of colonialism, profiting from war, hoarding extreme wealth as well as misogyny and pedophilia. His actions are not consistent with his words. For example, while the pope is calling for immediate action on climate change, there is no indication that the church is divesting from its carbon energy investments.
Climate Change Connects to All Issues, Essential for Justice
While Pope Francis did not mention climate change before the Congress, he did discuss the environmental crisis and in his climate encyclical he made many important points that showed climate is not only an environmental issue but a social justice issue connected to every aspect of life on earth. Further he puts the responsibility on developed countries and criticizes the weak response by government. He urges limiting consumption of carbon energy, a rapid shift to clean, sustainable energy and assistance for developing countries who bear the brunt of climate change even though they did the least to cause it.
His statements on the climate have inspired others to action. Religious leaders from the Jewish and Muslim faiths published their own views on climate. Non-religious statements were issued in Canada where artists, authors and activists came together for a call to action. People are calling on President Obama to heed the pope’s call. Others conducted an 18 day water-only hunger fast at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission calling for no new permits for oil and gas infrastructure. More joined the fast as the pope arrived and those involved were inspired and have strengthened their commitment to end reliance on carbon fuels.
The pope speaking out on climate comes in the context of the world focusing on the climate talks in Paris this December and with escalating activism around the globe against carbon-based fuels and their infrastructure. Just this week there were protests against oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic, First Nation women shutting down an Energy East Pipeline meeting in Canada, and activists in Virginia interrupting their governor at an energy meeting to criticize Dominion Resources which is building pipelines and an export terminal for fracked gas. Other activists are breaking from the oil and gas nightmare and seeking to build a solar dream; and still others view solar energy as leading to racial justice as well as clean energy.
The connection between climate and other issues was shown by climate justice protesters who joined in demonstrations at an immigrant detention center in Washington State saying they “believe the fight for migrant and climate justice are one and the same.” Again activists were inspired to action by the visit of Pope Francis, with hundreds of immigrants marching to DC urging the pope to make migrant issues a priority. Immigration has always been a hot button issue in Washington, DC where fear of people coming to the United States has replaced the country’s ideal of welcoming the “huddled masses.” Now immigration is becoming a worldwide problem which will grow as climate impacts grow but is now pushed by wars and extreme extraction. And, it results in human rights abuses e.g. the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán ordered attacks on unarmed migrants.
End Weapons Sales, Ban Nuclear Weapons and Seek Diplomacy Not War
One issue which the pope spoke out more strongly on than expected was militarism. He told the United States, the largest arms dealer in the world, to end the arms trade and he told the United Nations to ban nuclear weapons and to seek diplomatic rather than military solutions to conflicts. The pope’s call for ending nuclear arms comes at a time when bi-partisans in Washington are spending a trillion dollars to upgrade US nuclear weapons. The pope’s visit encouraged activists to protest war and militarism in Washington, DC and linked war to poverty and the environmental crisis. It also coincided with ongoing protests at Hancock Air Base from where drone attacks originate.
Indigenous Still Colonized By Doctrine Of Discovery and Praise for Colonizer Priest
Pope Francis was not in step with calls from Indigenous peoples. The pope canonized a California friar who colonized Native Americans and was responsible for many deaths, torture and their being forced to give up their culture and heritage to work for the Catholic Church missions in California. Pope Francis claimed we should not judge people who lived in different times, but we are now in the Twenty First Century and the pope is treating an abuser of Indigenous people as if he were a saint.
Indigenous peoples from across the Americas came to Philadelphia to urge the pontiff to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal bulls from the 15th century that justified European colonization of newly “discovered” lands. One particular papal bull, issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455, authorized Christian nations “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all … enemies of Christ,” take their land and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” While many other Christian denominations have repudiated this doctrine which provides legal justification for colonizers, the Catholic Church has yet to do so and did not during the visit to the United States. In July Pope Francis noted the “grave sins” against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and before Congress he acknowledged their rights “were not always respected.” But, the legal doctrine that justifies abusive behavior remains in effect.
Correcting Thousands of Years of Misogyny
In Washington, DC protesters urged Pope Francis to end the oppression of women in the church and allow their ordination as priests.
Protesters urged Pope Francis to draw the connection between the oppression of women within the church and violence against women in the world. Doing so would heal “hundreds, thousands of years of misogyny.”
Rev. Roy Bourgeois reminded people that the Catholic Church is a patriarchy and described the treatment of women as not “heavy theology,” but an obvious case of discrimination. He compared “the treatment of women in the church to black parishioners being confined to the back five pews of his childhood church. ‘Sexism, like racism, is a sin.’”
Capitalism, Poverty, Taking Advantage of People and Planet
Pope Francis has been outspoken in his criticism of capitalism during his tenure. Some have even seen him as an anti-capitalist, but in Washington, DC he toned down his criticism, sounded like an advocate of capitalism and urged reforms to protect the people and planet from its ravages. At the UN he criticized “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity,” leading to “both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” He criticized an economic system that has led to millions living in poverty, and described it as “a grave offense against human rights and the environment.”
Pope Francis criticized international financial agencies, which subject countries to “oppressive lending systems.” Far from promoting progress, he said, the terms of those arrangements “generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.”
These criticisms come at a time when corporations are sitting on $15 trillion in cash while austerity is demanded by bankers to take away the safety net of poor and working people. Around the world there are economic stagnation and fragile economies on the brink of recession or trying to get out of recession, yet corporations and wealthy individuals are hoarding their wealth arrogantly ignoring widespread suffering. An example is 32-year-old hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli’s move to raise the price of a life-saving medication from $13.50 a pill to $700.
Pope Francis has called for a “poor church for the poor” and yet it is one of the wealthiest institutions on the planet. Critics point to his massive security detail, private plans and expensive cars as he travels throughout the United States. The author of the Matrix, John Rappaport, urges the pope to look inward at the churches finances, audit them and determine what the Catholic Church could do to redistribute wealth and end poverty.
Recognition of Activists
Pope Francis built his speech to Congress around three activists and President Lincoln. The three activists were the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. This shows the pope recognizes where change comes from. While the pope is imperfect in his call for justice, he has certainly moved conversations on a range of issues forward unlike previous popes.
The social movement for environmental, racial and economic justice is building a new world with an economy designed for all, not the wealthiest, and with governing structures at all levels of government that allow greater participation by all, including direct democracy and democracy included in the basic aspects of our lives like worker management of the workplace. We must build unity around our values; the revolution of values is at the heart of our advocacy.
There is a moral imperative to our activism as we must act in the face of injustice. Values are not defined only by religious leaders but by each of us. José Mujica, the Former President Of Uruguay began his political life as a guerilla fighter against dictatorship. In an interview he describes what makes us human. He talks about understanding the suffering of others, responding to their injustice and living humbly so all can live decently.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called for a revolution of values saying:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”