(MintPress) – On the Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict laced his annual mass with a message regarding the detrimental impact of unregulated capitalism, calling for an end to the ever-growing gap between rich and poor throughout the globe, describing it as a threat along the same lines as terrorism.
Over the last 30 years, America has seen a growing divide between rich and poor — the very trend the pope was warning against. Between 1979 and 2007, the top 20 percent of earners saw income increases of 65 percent — those on the bottom 20 percent saw just an 18 percent increase, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). In Italy, the income inequality gap grew 33 percent in 20 years, as of 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“Although the world is sadly marked by hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism, as well as by various forms of terrorism and crime, I am convinced that the many different efforts at peacemaking which abound in our world testify to mankind’s innate vocation to peace,” the pope said, according to an English translation provided by Vatican Radio.
Those pockets of tension in the U.S. were escalated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, from which the phrase, “We Are the 99 Percent” was created — one that references the growing gap between the top 1 percent of earners and the rest. Yes, it seems Occupy protesters and the pope could see eye-to-eye on this one.
“I think Occupy Wall Street served a function in that it brought to the attention of the American public two things … the distortion of our economy and inequality,” Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told Reuters in October.
According to the CBO, the top 1 percent in America saw a 275 percent increase in income between 1979 and 2007. While created as Occupy Wall Street, the movement was adopted in 951 cities and 82 countries throughout the world.
The Vatican and wealth
While the pope’s message has been received by those who see it as a boost to the progressive, pro-workers movement throughout the world, others question whether the Vatican, an organization that saw a revenue in 2010 of $356 million should be one to discuss income inequality, especially considering the poverty seen today in Rome. Roughly $15 million of that revenue was generated through churches around the world.
As the Vatican takes in an extraordinary amount of money, it was operating in the red up until 2011. This, according to Theology and Economics professor and renowned author, Daniel Flint, negates the perception that the vatican is a rich, extravagant operation. Funding, Flint told MintPress News, is needed to protect the historical and artistic documents and artifacts — treasured not only among Catholics, but also by scholars (who are still petitioning to have access to the Vatican library).
The British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) indicated in a 2011 report that the Vatican’s budget is also spent on covering activities of the pope and the Vatican’s broadcast operations, which include the airing of Vatican Radio in five continents.
The Vatican made a decision to release its documents in 1981, allegedly to combat the sentiment that it was wealthy.
Applying the message to American politics, union fights
The pope’s message was nothing new, yet it came at a time of national debate over the economy and the role of labor unions in the U.S., with America fresh off the controversial right-to-work bill passed in Michigan — a model bill sponsored by corporate donors of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
While presumably giving workers the right to choose whether to pay union dues, the bill is blamed for weakening the bargaining system of employees in the long run. The pope’s comments regarding capitalism raise the question: If asked specifically about the role of workers unions, what would his response be?
“There’s no doubt whatsoever that this pope and all the popes over the last century have been for labor rights, for unions,” Flint said.
Conservative Catholics in the U.S. may have cringed to hear that unregulated capitalism is to blame for the growing divide in economic inequality.
A 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed the divide between Catholic voters on the left and right side of the aisle were split, with 49 percent identifying as Republicans and 42 percent as Democrats. While not a black and white issue, the debate over bills like “right-to-work” typically divide between the two major political parties, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats against.
Sen. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is an example of the political trend. A known Catholic, Ryan touted a voting record that did not favor unions – he opposed the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress. The legislation was championed by union supporters, as it allowed workers to choose to form unions, without the threat of termination.
This puts Americans, specifically Catholic and other Christian sects, in an interesting predicament, especially when creating a political belief intended to mirror spiritual convictions. Yet it’s not the first time the Catholic Church has faced the issue — and not the first time parishioners have taken stances in defense of both sides.
And while there’s still debate among people of the faith, the pope’s most recent World Peace Day message is as old as the church itself. A letter written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 echoes the sentiment of the pope’s New Years Day Message.
“In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place,” he wrote. “Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard heartedness of employers and the green of unchecked competition.”
While acknowledging that unions can be subject to corruption, as are corporations, Flint told MintPress the church’s pro-union stance dates back to the Old Testament.
“The fundamental reasons that the church defends unions is the imbalance of power between employer and employee,” Flint added.
In 2010, the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, a pro-union organization, equated union busting to a mortal sin, releasing a statement outlining its declaration which includes references to the First, Fifth and Seventh Commandments, in addition to Catholic social doctrine.
“Union busting refers to the action of any person who seeks to prevent employees from forming a labor union, or who attempts to undermine or destroy an existing union,” the statement reads. “This person is in grave material violation of Catholic Social Doctrine on labor unions. This violation of Catholic Doctrine constitutes material grounds for mortal sin …”
The Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice is the first to point out the mistakes the church has made along the way, referencing instances in which leaders of the church have been at the forefront of union busting.
In 1949, Cardinal Francis Spellman intervened on a gravediggers strike at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in New York. According to an article published in the Catholic Worker, Spellman claimed those striking were under communist influence. A recent example given came in 2008, when the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers attempts to negotiate through unions with the Bishop of Scranton were unsuccessful due to the Bishop’s refusal.
Such instances and political divide among people of faith within the U.S. are likely to persist — not because of a softening of stance by the Vatican, but through a lack of concentration on the issue.
“The pope is not saying anything dramatically new — this is the teaching that has been around,” Flint said. “On the other hand, it is an area of life that most priests don’t preach about, and I think that’s a real loss. That’s a much more difficult problem to sort out as to why there’s much more teaching on these issues.”
Yet with organizations like Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, advocates will continue to stand on the side of workers — and on the side of the pope in a battle against an even larger income inequality gap in the U.S.