EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 25, 2013

Column:Let Pope Francis' disregard for wealth change the church

Bonnie Erbe
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Just about everything about Pope Francis rings true. A mere two months into his papacy, he has shed many of the Roman Catholic Church’s gaudy and inapt symbols of materialism and returned the philosophical focus to where Jesus Christ would have wanted it to be: on the poor.

Banished to Vatican closets are his predecessors’ ornate Renaissance vestments, along with an assortment of un-Christlike, ostentatious adornments including a solid gold crucifix.

Francis spends little or no time in the chambered papal apartment filled with princely, museum-quality furniture. He prefers the more humble surroundings of a communal setting in a Vatican residence where he leads early morning Mass.

This month, Francis delivered a series of public pronouncements that have some radical anti-capitalist theologians salivating over his views on money and international finance. He told a small audience of ambassadors to the Vatican that free-market capitalism had created a “tyranny” and that human beings were being valued purely as consumers, not as real people, The Telegraph reported last week.

According to the British newspaper, Francis told his audience that money should be made to “serve” people, not to “rule” them. He called for a more ethical financial system and curbs on financial speculation. He urged national governments to impose more control over their economies and to end “absolute autonomy” of the free market and instead to provide “for the common good.”

In many respects, I agree with Francis on this line of thinking. I part company with him when he sees corporations as comprised entirely of evildoers. I appreciate what corporations have done to create employment. I utterly adore the fact that he, unlike his predecessors, is pointing out what commercialism and materialism have done to warp people’s values and turn them into monster consumers.

I fault him, however, for failing to mention, as he rails against mega-corporations, that he happens to run one of the wealthiest organizations in the world.

In March, Canada’s National Post newspaper published an article headlined “Wealth of Roman Catholic Church impossible to calculate.” It listed some of the priceless real estate the church owns in Vatican City, including the Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica -- the world’s largest church, erected over the supposed burial site of the apostle Peter, the first bishop of Rome.

Beyond that, the church is one of the world’s largest landholders. It owns 716,290 square kilometers across the globe, plus the Vatican embassies, churches, cathedrals, monasteries, schools and convents on that land. It has almost a metric ton of gold, as well as close to almost $100 million a year in parish donations.

One more troubling fact tarnishes Francis’ anti-corporate rant. The church owns billions of dollars’ worth of stock in foreign corporations -- in such industries as banking, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction and real estate. National Post is quick to note that the church “only invests in companies that operate according to Catholic morals. For example, it will not invest in a pharmaceutical company if it produces birth control products.

Ah, so morality is paramount when it comes to quashing poor women’s access to birth control. But it’s fine for this pope to question the greed of multinational corporations, even though he keeps many of those same greedy companies in the church’s portfolio.

This is the part of Francis that does not seem consistent. I’d like to see him divest the church’s portfolio of any corporate stock he might see as controlled by “evil” capitalists. I’d like to see him sell that stock and use the proceeds for feeding, clothing and providing housing for the poor people he so adores.

Then Francis and all the enthusiasm and energy he brings to his papacy would ring true in all respects.

Bonnie Erbe, the host of PBS’ “To the Contrary,” writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email: bonnie.scrippshoward@gmail.com.