When Kumi Naidoo’s mother urged him to see God in the eyes of every human being that you meet, she was echoing a sentiment once expressed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who told the devout to “seek and find God in all things.” You may recall that Ignatius founded the Jesuits, and now there is a Jesuit pope, the first in Catholic Church history.
Last weekend, Pope Francis visited Sardinia, the Mediterranean island known for its white sand beaches and deluxe vacation homes owned by the rich and famous. Now Sardinia is blighted by closed factories and mines operating at low capacity. Thousands are out of work, including 50 percent of its young people.
Last year, in an effort to keep their jobs, workers in Sardinia barricaded themselves in front of a mine packed with almost 700 kilograms of explosives. One miner told the cameras, “We cannot take it anymore. We cannot. We cannot … Is this what we have to do?” And slit his wrist on live TV.
The pope met with some of those unemployed workers, including Francesco Mattana; 45 years old, married, father of three children, unemployed now for four years after losing his job with an alternative energy company.
Mattana told Pope Francis how unemployment, “oppresses you and wears you out to the depths of your soul.”
The pope was so moved, he put aside his prepared speech and talked spontaneously of the suffering he was seeing, suffering that “weakens” and “robs you of hope,” he said.
“Where there’s no work, there’s no dignity.” The consequence, the Pope said, of a system that has at its center an idol called money.
The crowd of 20,000 cheered. And when the Pope told them, you must fight for work, they cheered again, and broke into a chant that the pope heard as a prayer for work, work, work.
At that moment, Pope Francis was not just the head of the Catholic Church. Rather, he embodied the heart of a catholic cry for justice, small “c” catholic, a universal aspiration expressed in our country by the promise that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the birthright of every citizen.
Surely, that’s not hard to understand. What the richest parents want for their children is what the poorest parents want for theirs. Measure their aspiration, however, against the fact that more than 21 million Americans are still in need of full time work, many of them running out of jobless benefits.
The richest 400 Americans are now worth a combined $2 trillion, while new figures from the Census Bureau show that the typical middle class family makes less, less than it did in 1989, with roughly 46 million people living at or below the poverty line. With the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percentage of kids in poverty than we do. Yet the House of Representatives has just cut food stamps for people who don’t have enough money to feed themselves.
Listen. That sound you hear is the shredding of the social contract. And look at this heading above a piece in the current Columbia Journalism Review, “The line between democracy and a darker social order is thinner than you think.” If that doesn’t send a shiver down the spine, I don’t know what it will take to wake us up.
So Pope Francis and Kumi Naidoo speak the truth, in different accents and with different metaphors, but their message boils down to this, capitalism is like fire, a good servant but a bad master. If we don’t dethrone our present system of financial capitalism that rewards those at the top who then use it to rig the rules against even the most reasonable check on their excesses, It will consume us. And that fragile, thin line between democracy and a darker social order will be extinguished.