This week, Bernard Sanders, the socialist independent U.S. Senator from Vermont, stood up in front of his colleagues to quote the Pope.
“I don’t usually comment much on religious matters, but I was very impressed by what the Pope had to say today,” said Sanders. “Frankly, I have strong disagreements with the Catholic Church on issues of women’s rights, issues of gay rights, and a number of other issues. On this issue of what is happening economically around the world–the power of financial markets; the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else; the need for government and for states around the world to step in and protect the dispossessed; the need to understand that money unto itself means nothing unless it is being used in a way that improves the lives of all people–that is a message coming from the Pope. It is a message worth thinking about and discussing.”
Senator Sanders cited a speech Pope Frances recently made to ambassadors from Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg, and Botswana. In that speech, the Pope said:
“People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way. One cause of this situation, in my opinion, is in our relationship with money, and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society. Consequently the financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in a profound human crisis. In the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”
One could point out that it doesn’t take money to deny the primacy of human beings. At many times in its history, the Catholic Church has used its power to demand the labor of human beings – without compensating them for their work. Money is a means that we have in society of recognizing the worth of what people do, and enabling them to transfer that worth to others.
The Pope’s aversion to money is not so much ethical as it is religious. When Senator Bernard Sanders nods his head in agreement with Pope Frances in calling money a false idol, he leads us to suspect that his own socialist rejection of money has rather religious overtones as well.
It seems to me that Bernard Sanders made a mistake in citing the speech of Pope Frances. Though the Pope’s words may be useful in advancing Sanders’s agenda among more traditionally religious groups, they weaken his credibility among the growing minority of Americans who don’t accept theological proclamations as a matter of faith.
The Catholic Church’s preaching against money doesn’t stop it from hoarding currency itself, or from spending it to try to buy the silence of the victims of its abuses. In the past, crusades against money by socialists and Christians alike have provided a justification for atrocities against the primacy of human beings.
The rejection of money as inherently wicked has not been a sustainable tactic for those who seek a just society. A more healthy approach might be for us to seek a balanced relationship with work and money, in which we appreciate money’s deeper worth, and therefore distribute it more wisely.