The Catholic Thing
Pope Francis, Brazil, and the Lessons of Detroit Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 22 July 2013

Pope Francis arrives in Brazil this week for World Youth Day. The pre-emptive spin in the mainstream media is that he will “focus” (NYT yesterday) on “social justice.” Doubtless, he will speak about poverty and solidarity – common themes in his speeches and homilies. But if the Bishop of Rome only pushes what Albert Camus once called “the usual mouthwash,” he’d not only be working largely outside his competence. He’d be neglecting his main task: evangelization, which is to say, the eternal salvation of souls.

Given Francis’s power of combining simplicity of life and calls for reform with profound spiritual themes, the media’s preferred social justice scenario is a simplistic pipedream. In the “focus” story, this loopy characterization appeared: “The trip, whose nominal purpose [emphasis added] is to have the pope meet with and speak to participants at the World Youth Day, a conference of Catholic youth here. . . .”

If this kind of sophistical idiocy can appear in our “paper of record,” it’s going to be amusing seeing what emerges from the laptops of reporters and commentators working the shoals of the lesser outlets.

World Youth Days, founded by John Paul II, have been taking place since 1985. At Manila in 1995, 5 million young people showed up (the largest human gathering ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records). Tens of millions more have attended elsewhere over the years, including a million in Paris.

The Catholic Church in Brazil is facing a sharp decline among young people. A Pew report noted just last week that over 20 percent of Brazilians, the country with the most Catholics in the world, have left the Church for evangelical and pentecostalist groups, which are growing in similar fashion worldwide. Francis knows this and will address it. Why even hold a WYD if all you want to do is make speeches on social justice?

But journalists of a certain cast cannot take evangelizing young people seriously.  So instead of accurately reporting the central purpose of the trip, we are now being told that, beyond this “nominal purpose,” the pope may even have declared a “truce” with liberation theology.

The evidence? He’s allowed Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero’s cause for canonization to go forward. But Romero, who was killed by a government death squad while he was saying Mass, like Francis, carefully avoided endorsing Marxist “liberation theology,” even as he championed the poor and oppressed.

Amidst all this shadow boxing, we need some hard facts. Brazil is troubled at the moment. Young people have been protesting corruption, waste, poor educational and health services, and police tactics. Even the decisions to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, which will cost tens of billions, have caused demonstrations.

According to reliable sources, Francis will engage this youthful zeal, calling for better uses of new wealth and better government to administer it.

         Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio De Janeiro

By the way, the Brazilian government that young people are protesting has, for a decade, been run by the radical Left. In 2003, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) and his Workers’ Party took over. His chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, succeeded him in 2011. They’ve both been more moderate in office than out. But like President Obama, they’ve found there are few simple answers to deep economic and political problems, which now involve global as well as local factors.

Brazil is in the “BRIC” group, with Russia, India, and China, and has a rapidly growing economy (5 percent annually). It’s following a typical pattern – expanding wealth that, paradoxically, produces a revolution of rising expectations.

Francis knows that there’s a lot of wishful thinking when it comes to development – the only real way to help large numbers of the poor. As cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he shunned Liberation Theology because of its Marxist assumptions. There’s no surer way to condemn the poor to a holding pattern than imposing command economies like the ones that impoverished and alienated people in the Soviet Bloc.

But even what seems sound solidarity can quickly turn disastrous, as we’ve seen in Detroit’s recent travails. In its heyday, Motor City promised things it thought could last forever. Indeed, a judge just ruled that its bankruptcy declaration is illegal because a Michigan law prohibits public employees’ benefits from being reduced. Ever.   

Some are already speaking about how the Church or churches or “we” need to save that poor suffering city. It’s a humane idea. But the main question, always, is how?

When German Chancellor Willy Brandt visited Brazil in the 1970s, an archbishop asked him to force Volkswagen plants there to pay the same wages as in Germany. Though a Social Democrat, Brandt pointed out that such a move would solve his unemployment problem back home, since the plants would move back to Germany. But it wouldn’t do much for Brazilians.

Anyone, Christian or secular, who wants to get into the economic salvation business needs to be quite modest and mercilessly realistic. If moral passion were sufficient, the saintly Dorothy Day would be a great savior of the poor. Her political and economic views went nowhere – rightly so – because they couldn’t possibly benefit the very people she wished to help.

Raising up the poor takes economic growth and even the dreaded pursuit of real “profit,” something many Catholic reformers see as the problem rather than the solution. But it was the old capitalistic, profitable auto industry that once made Detroit a thriving metropolis.

Pope Francis is nobody’s fool. As he speaks to the youth gathered from all over the globe this week, he will tell them that it’s an essential Christian duty to care for the poor and seek various ways to improve their lot. But he will also speak, as is his wont, about much else that constitutes the fullness of Christian life.

Look for it. It will be there. But don’t expect to find it in the mainstream media.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by petebrown, July 22, 2013
Interesting mix of themes in this piece Bob. Your sentence about profits and raising the poor made me think.

There is an issue bubbling beneath the surface in the US wherein companies are very profitable but the labor share of national income is at a post WWII low. There is a connection here. Companies have gotten almost too good at cutting labor costs to the bone.

Actually Wall Street sees this too which is one reason why despite the surging market P/E ratios are actually low by the standards of the last decades. It may be holding down payrolls in aggregate has just suppressed the buying power of its customer base (those workers are also customers after all)which limits growth prospects.

The remark about the auto industry in Brazil also made me think. According to Forbes, Volkswagen in Germany pays its workers anywhere from 2-4 times what they make in Volkswagen's US plants. (and that includes fringe benefits). In a sense the workers there are doing much better than they would at Walmart...but it is inescapable that the US has really created a race to the bottom in terms of the wages a large number of its workers earn.

Politically it is a mystery...neither party actually seems much concerned with it and most of the leading proposals favored by one or both parties (more generous EITC and govt. benefits for low wage workers, more immigration, higher payroll taxes with lower taxes on income, dividends and capital gains) promise to make the problem worse.

We could be in for another good old fashioned labor-capital struggle such as we have not seen in decades if this keeps up and I fear Republicans won't be able to raise the specter of the old Soviet Union nor use the old "rising tide lifts all boats" argument to head off calls for more aggressive attempts at redistribution in the offing.

But in the near term, for anyone who cares about subsidiarity, the distribution of incomes cannot be a matter of indifference even in a wealthy country like the US!
written by suzuki, July 22, 2013
As has been pointed out on several other Roman Catholic websites, "after 120 days of pontificate Pope Francis has not yet spoken the words abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage." He has instead talked mostly of central Catholic doctrines: God's forgiveness, Jesus as saviour, the Holy Spirit as present in the Church, the challenge of doing good and avoiding evil, and helping the poor ...

He has paid no attention to the moral questions which are roiling the West and will increasingly disturb the developing world as well (through on-going U.N. and IMF interventions). Pope Francis has adopted a different approach to the Pontificate, simpler intellectually, less focused on specific moral issues, and more based on the emotions and dramatic actions and images. Perhaps he has been influenced by the concepts of Von Balthasar in this.

One thing you can be sure of: he will not talk about the virtues of capitalism in Brazil ...
written by Jack,CT, July 22, 2013
Mr Royal,
Great aticle, packed with great stuff!
Anyway i am upset to hear how many are leaving
the church.I pray mass is incorporated more in
these fiths.
I see world youth day as "Hope" and who beter
than our Holy Father to help.
I have been praying for so many but the lords will
is to prevail.
I have to say I hope those I hear are angry with
the Papal visit relize our Pope is just as poor at
written by Pam H., July 22, 2013
The "shoals of the lesser outlets" typically are more accurate and unbiased than the NYT.
written by Mack, July 22, 2013
Mr. Petebrown,

This nation is not rich; this nation is desperately poor. Just as a British battleship off Alexandria or Tokyo in 1945 might project great power but camouflages the poverty back home, our stocks of missiles and drones are a Potemkin village (a dangerous village, to be sure) in front of the collapsed infrastructure everywhere.
written by Grump, July 22, 2013
" was the old capitalistic, profitable auto industry that once made Detroit a thriving metropolis." That was 50 years ago when whites were the hard-working, tax-paying majority. This is a recent snapshot of Detroit and why it could now be called Detoilet:

As of the 2010 Census, the racial composition of the city was:

82.7% Black or African American;
10.6% White (7.8% non-Hispanic whites);
3% from other races;
1.1% Asian;
2.2% from two or more races;
0.4% American Indian;
0.02% Pacific Islander.
written by Brian English, July 22, 2013
"But in the near term, for anyone who cares about subsidiarity, the distribution of incomes cannot be a matter of indifference even in a wealthy country like the US!"

Absolutely correct. There is nothing Catholic, nor anything conservative, about executives who make 200 to 2,000 times more than the average employee of a company. The big question though is, how do you control that?

I don't want the government dictating the salaries paid at private companies, but shareholders have not controlled the absurd growth of executive salaries. I suppose attempts at public shaming through the publicizing of obscene salaries is worth a shot, but is the concept of shame even relevant to modern society?
written by Chris in Maryland, July 22, 2013
On Brian E's note:

One of the giant problems has been companies going public - this means diverting earnings from employees, and shifting the "earnings" to "investors" (wealthier than most employees) - topped off with gigantic compensation to upper Execs.

I have been in 5 companies in consulting, from 20 employees to 90,000. The one with 20 paid the best compensation to line employees, including profit sharing. The one with 90,000 paid the worst, eliminating profit sharing, slashing benefits and stifling wages.

In this world & economic model - big government & big business ensure that big law writes legislation that favors the big businesses who rob their employees to pay the well-to-do investors.
written by Sir Mark, July 22, 2013
Did you really mean to write that Detroit is a toilet because it is 82% African American? In the name of charity, I'm going to assume that you couldn't possibly have meant what you wrote.
written by Chris in Maryland, July 22, 2013
I have read the theme for 28th WYD 2013, written by Pope Benedict XVI. It is a splendid letter, on the theme of the Great Commission ("Go and make disciples of all nations!" Matt 28), and ends (part 6) with an encouragement to perservere in the face of trials (Matt 5: 11-12). I will watch Catholic media with interest to see how WYD itself, and our own Catholic media coverage, carry this message.
written by Jack,CT, July 22, 2013
Barely past his first 100 days and it
seems people had high exspectations
of our Holy Father.
Perhaps we do not give the Local
parish the credit of the Father in
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, July 23, 2013
Using John's Lennon's song "Imagine" as the backdrop, could you "imagine" if all those religious orders who had orginated in Europe and emigrated to the USA to evangelize the newly-arrived poor had then turned their sights in the 1950's on the still-struggling Latin American countries that needed educators and healthcare workers? Since their work was pretty much accomplished here by the mid-1950's, those religious sisters, brothers and priests could have channeled all their resources to alleviating poverty in Central and South America. Of course this would have happened just prior to their mission in the USA having evaporated and causing their numbers to evaporate with it.

These religious orders could have gone to Latin America, set up schools, hospitals and clinics and used their many, many fine colleges and hospital that they owned and operated here in the USA for the advanced education of the indigenous LA countries who would then have returned to their countries to serve their people. In addition, because they would have continued to have a meaningful charism in the local Latin American Church, they would have been able to attract vocations to their religious communities to support their aging members. Again, they would have been able to educate their novices and scholastics back here in the USA so that they could return, highly educated, to serve their people back in Latin America.

Instead, we had nuns, brothers and priests with no ministry for which their were originally founded, with far too many of them insinuating themselves into "parish ministry" where they tried to exercise power and influence. Or else they were getting on busses to support abortion, contraception, homosexual marriage, women priests and all the other childish nonsense that the diminishing numbers of those remaining got involved with. Just think what good all those religious could have done for the poor in the past 60 years!

In Latin America, instead of having Catholic sisters, brothers and priests evangelizing the peoples there through works of charity, the protestants went there in droves and have succeeded in converting millions OUT of the Catholic Church. Just think of all the good that could have been done with all those millions and millions of CCHD monies that went to supporting leftist political organizations in the USA like ACORN.
written by Manfred, July 23, 2013
I always enjoy your columns, Robert, as they are well researched and well written. Pope Francis strikes me as a "mechanic", i.e., someone who is repairing your car or the boiler in your office building while you are not present. You have a confidence, hopefully, that he knows what he is doing, but you don't want to watch him do it.
A friend of mine attended WYD in Toronto which was the last that JP II attended, and my friend was really put off. He witnessed at one time the distribution of Holy Communion to thousands of people and the discipline was abominable. Hosts were dropped (by accident, one would hope) and little attempt was made to retrieve them. The atmosphere was one of carnival. My friend vowed he would never attend another one. It all comes back to your point on evangelizatio - how many attendees will ultimately achieve salvation?
written by Mark Gordon, July 23, 2013
It is always such a treat to read right-liberals trying to toss a prophylactic cordon around American-style capitalism. I call this "Weigelism," and Robert Royal is a Weigelian of the first order. In fact, the Church does have a social program, and it far more radical than anything Marx, Lenin, Smith or Hayek ever dreamed of. Francis threatens them all (and their contemporary acolytes) because he is being faithful to that program, inhabiting it, and preaching it to the world: "How I would like a Church that is poor, and is for the poor." That must shake American right-liberals (not to mention their wealthy donors) to their souls.
written by Robert Royal, July 23, 2013
Mark: George and I agree on many things and disagree on others. And I've been called worse. No one half aware of economics has ever denied that capitalism leads to "creative destruction," which is often not pleasant. It's good that Francis talks about a Church that is poor and and is for the poor. But the question, as I said in the original column, is what it means to be for the poor. As Churchill said of democracy, it's the worst system, except for all the others. There's nothing out there that is even remotely likely to raise up the poor like a properly regulated and organized market system. John Paul II said precisely that in Centesimus Annus. And nothing said by ay pope since has been aware of all the complexities of a modern political, economic, and social order.

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