- - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage is quoted by Newsmax (May 12) as calling on Pope Francis to begin the “legitimate” redistribution of wealth by monetizing the wealth of the Vatican and distributing the proceeds to the poor.

This rant was in response to the pope’s recent speech to the U.N. secretary-general and officials urging them to promote a “worldwide ethical mobilization” of solidarity with the world’s poor. The pope said that the U.N. should seek the “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society” in order to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Savage then went on to describe U.S. taxation in relation to the poor as more than adequate, and called the pope “Karl Marx in a papal outfit.”

It seems there are two responses to Savage. First, he has a valid point about the Vatican setting the example of giving of its wealth to the poor. In modern parlance, it is important for those who talk the talk to also walk the walk. The fact is that the Vatican sits on untold wealth in the form of its priceless art and artifacts. No effort has ever been made to convert these treasures into currency. The basic reason is that no pope has ever felt free to disperse this wealth, which has been accumulating for 2,000 years. It has always been looked upon as sacred objects of past devotion by the donors.

This position should be reviewed for the purpose of setting rules that would allow the sale of at least some of the Vatican’s treasures. Many of these pieces are in storage, and have not been seen by anybody for centuries, if ever. It would seem that the greater good would be served by the sale of these items to care for the poor. Pope Francis, who has foregone the luxurious papal apartment for a simple monk’s cell, would seem to be disposed toward such a policy.

Michael Savage has a valid point in this regard.

The second consideration of Savage’s comments concerns the context from which Pope Francis speaks. He is from Argentina, not Palm Springs. The poor he is talking about are in the barrios of Latin America, the slums of Africa, the shantytowns of India and the Far East, and the refugee camps in the Middle East. These people live in conditions that are unimaginable to most Americans. Francis is a man of these poor, not the American poor, many of whom live in circumstances that would be considered as middle class or better in Third World countries. These are people who face starvation every day, water laden with disease, shelter that may blow away in the next storm, and clothes that are rags.

No thoughtful person could argue that there should not be social norms and economic systems that alleviate the life-threatening conditions faced by the poor. Much of this discrepancy results from corruption or age-old class distinctions, if not by wars or famines. No workable means of dealing with these challenges has ever been found. Revolutions and civil wars have been tried, but the outcomes usually result in changes only at the top of the society and the poor experience little relief. The only option at this time that seems to be available is an appeal to a higher ethical standard for the “haves” in relation to the “have-nots.” This is what Francis did in his speech to the U.N. leaders, and indeed in his encyclical “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and in other forums.

Americans understandably read these words in the context of liberal U.S. politicians’ call for higher taxes and more entitlements. Many Americans have suggested the pope consider how Western democracies will interpret his words, but to no effect as yet.

There is, however, a deeper problem. Words like “democracy,” “capitalism,” “democratic republic,” and “rule of law” have been used and abused by dictators all over the Third World to justify their tyrannical regimes. Notable examples are the Perons and their successors in Argentina, the pope’s homeland. This fact legitimizes his use and understanding of these words, though significantly different from ours.

These observations cannot be concluded without mention of the American alternative — democratic capitalism. This is a system that can provide an answer to the need for an intellectual response to the plight of the poor. The history of the last 20 years has proven, however, that this system cannot be successfully imposed on a society from the top down. Egypt is the latest example: A democratic election placed the tyrannical Muslim Brotherhood in charge of the government.

Since the American system is based on the consent of its citizens, it cannot flourish without a strong consensus in favor of its values. It is this consensus that is lacking in many developing countries. China represents a different paradigm of social change. Even though the governing class of China is decidedly communist, the vast population is adopting more and more capitalistic practices. Other Asian countries are adapting in a similar way, although not all under communism. Whatever the paradigm, the ruling class must provide for enough individual freedom to allow capitalism to grow.

The bottom line in listening to Pope Francis is to hear to the message and not get caught up in the language. His message is simple: We must help the destitute of the world.