Unbecoming American: THE Option for the Poor

Unbecoming American: Option for the Poor

Many years ago, in the previous century, an old controversy in the Latin Church was resuscitated, that of Christian poverty. Anyone who pursues the history of the Latin Church and the papal empire will find periodic disputes over the meaning of such dicta as “the poor shall inherit the Earth” or innumerable other citations attributed to the biblical Jesus of Nazareth. At the apex of its power the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition included those who insisted that poverty was a fundamental principle of Christian life (meaning for all the clergy, too). Franciscans and others were burned for professing this conviction. With the lapse of centuries, especially after the secularizations imposed by the 1789 revolution in France, the heresy was no longer punished by public combustion. The apparent supremacy of the secular state meant that such debates about opulence and penury were transferred to another sphere. Clergy might debate theological merits. However they had no direct influence on State policy.

All that changed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The accelerating movement toward what was hopefully awaited as the end of colonialism in all its forms also pushed regular and secular clergy as well as laity toward nationalism, the demands for self-determination and national development. The first wave of independence struggles, associated with Simon Bolivar, had been driven by anti-clerical, Enlightenment secularizers. This attitude persisted well into the 20th century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was distinctly, even violently anti-clerical. In fact, the seminal independence war in the Western hemisphere, the American War of Independence of 1776, was an exception. The United States was formed with an explicit prohibition of religious establishment. However this prohibition was only a rejection of the British substitution for Latin supremacy by creation of the Church of England to perform the same role, not of clerical status per se. In fact the United States would evolve into a kind of secular church where not only the invocation of the Christian (later also others) deity was standard, the nation itself was transformed into an instrument of divine salvation. Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, made famous by contralto Kate Smith, became one of the great popular expressions of worship in the North American Empire, where religious tolerance actually meant an obsession with religion.

Despite a strong anti-Latin prejudice among much of the US population (with the exception of numerous Irish and Italian immigrants) including the widely-held belief that a Latin POTUS would inevitably render the US a vassal of the Roman pontificate, this secular church preferred Latin America under church domination to anything Left. Since the Latin Church had retained control over most of the educational system in countries south of the United Mexican States, the class of people who had finished secondary and tertiary schooling were heavily influenced by Church education. Even those who did not become priests or religious shared years of Christian indoctrination with their classmates. Hence it should have been no surprise that the radicalization following Vatican II would shape the attitudes of young, educated clerics as well as those who had pursued other professions. Even today the Second Vatican Council is a highly contentious moment in the history of the Latin Church. Traditionalists continue to fight for reversal of the liturgical and ecclesiastical forms subsequently adopted. Significantly this era provoked the hierarchy with a resuscitation of the Fraticelli heresy reformulated as the “preferential option for the poor”.

Instead of asserting that the Church and especially the hierarchy abandon its status, the “preferential option for the poor” was derived from the Council’s resolutions and the so-called “social teaching” beginning when Leo XIII promulgated the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. This new generation of priests and laity argued that the Church had a duty to prefer the poor and serve them rather than ministering to the ruling elites. Along with the dogma of papal infallibility promulgated after the First Vatican Council, the Papacy was engaged in a vigorous attempt to counter what economist Michael Hudson identified as the factive march toward socialism throughout the West. It should be understood that the liberal debunking of Marxist determinism is based on ignorance or refusal to comprehend the fundamentals of Marx’s analysis. The Church on the other hand comprehended that it would need a social doctrine to respond to socialism’s emergence in the West.

The conservatives in this initially broad movement—focussed mainly in Central and South America—agreed the necessity of pacifying the poor with attention. The French Revolution had been inspired by misinterpretation of the UDI struggle in British North America. In turn the 1789 revolution inspired the overthrow of slavery in Saint Dominique, France’s richest colony. That revolution, although infamously compromised by the slaveholder republic to the North, catalyzed the wave of Bolivarian independence wars that drove Spain out of the Western hemisphere — except Cuba until the end of the 19th century. The Church had always been on the side of the colonizers and later the post-colonial elite. Although the conservatives remained loyal to that ruling class, they saw the historical wave and wanted to ride rather than sink beneath it. After 1945, the conservatives warned that the hierarchy had served the cities but utterly neglected the countryside. The radicals complained that the hierarchy was a collaborator and beneficiary in the prevailing oppressive systems. For conservatives, the preferential option meant sending priests to neglected parishes and strengthening religious-patriotic organizations in the rural areas. Radicals wanted the Church to lead fundamental social and economic reform. The most radical felt that Christian teaching obliged them to support armed insurrection if that was necessary to liberate the poor from oppression.

This return to the traditional concern for the oppressed, i.e. those forced to live in poverty deprived of the most basic needs for human survival and the means to improve their lives beyond bare subsistence, was also a return to the fundamental heresy that the Church must not only serve the poor but renounce enrichment. While the Universal Inquisition had nearly disappeared from political life by the end of the 19th century, the hierarchy had not substantially altered its claims to worldly wealth, honor and power. Under Benito Mussolini the Roman pontiff was recognized as a sovereign over the territory of the Vatican, thus restoring the political authority of the Latin Church. The Weimar Constitution recognized both the Latin Church and the Protestant (Lutheran and Calvinist) Church as quasi-sovereigns on whose behalf church tax was introduced, a levy on the wages of all citizens who did not explicitly renounce confessional membership. Later a concordat, i.e. a treaty between the German Reich and the Papacy, gave formal rights and privileges to the Church and protected its property. The extensive secularization of Church properties in the course of the 19th century were and still are compensated by taxpayers through rates collected at municipal level. In other words, the Latin Church, as arguably one of the largest landowners in the western peninsula of Eurasia, may not have the power to anoint heads of state or ban them and the states over which they preside. However it is a major business actor and property owner and hence part of the corporate cartel that dominates the bourgeois political system, cosmetically called democracy.

Hence it should not have been surprising to find that the pontiff appointed with the exceptional influence of Anglo-American covert action, John Paul II, should appoint a cardinal-bishop raised under the NSDAP regime to head the Holy Office. Joseph Ratzinger, who later managed to promote himself to the pontificate (like GHW Bush went to the CIA before finally becoming POTUS), joined the forces of the Anglo-American Empire to crush the religious-clerical support for the last wave of independence and anti-colonial struggle in Central and South America. Although there were also activists and promoters of what was now called “liberation theology” on other continents, Africa was only place they had achieved something of a mass base. The Republic of South Africa was dominated by Protestant denominations. Thus radicals like Archbishop Hurley (who like his brother in Christ Dom Helder Camara began as a conservative) were able to benefit from episcopal privileges but remained minority voices. Even the more famous Anglican bishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu was far more marginal in country than his reputation outside South Africa suggested. In the Asia-Pacific region, only the Philippines had a substantial Latin congregation. The peculiarities (better said the perversions) of the US-dominated archipelago prevented a critical mass from developing there. While the Boff brothers (Leonardo, a Franciscan and Clodovis, a Servite) in Brazil and Gutiérrez in Peru (Dominican) became notorious. Another Dominican, Albert Nolan, managed to avoid the persecution. (Perhaps because the Latin Church was relatively weak in South Africa and liberation theology opposed apartheid which the Holy Office could not openly defend.) Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff as well as the Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal were all punished for supposedly politicizing their offices. The archbishop of Recifé and Olinda Dom Helder Camara and the cardinal archbishop of Sao Paulo, Paulo Evaristo Arns, were not deposed but had their jurisdictions diluted to reduce the authority they could exercise. In other words like in the Middle Ages, the hierarchy punished dissident clergy for taking the “option for the poor” too literally.

The US, both directly through prejudicial policies and covert action and indirectly through foundations and evangelical-pentacostal ministries, had been working to prevent an increasingly radicalized Latin base, organized for example in the CEBs (basic ecclesiastical communities) from developing the capacity to mobilize the countryside. The cooperation of the Ratzinger’s Holy Office was needed to give ideological cover for the assassinations, kidnapping and destruction delivered by US armed propaganda teams and secret units of national armed forces, like those that murdered Bishop Oscar Romero while he was saying mass in Salvador. Evangelical missions not only promoted the US “free enterprise” ideology and its charismatic style, they also competed actively to undermine historically Latin parishes and dioceses. The more extreme of these sects even saw the Latin Church as an evil competing with communism—both of which had to be met with force. Institutional religion has always been a technology for social transformation. The more hierarchically it is structured the more amenable it is to political hierarchies, like those of monarchy and aristocracy. However corporate oligarchies are governed by religious ideologies as well. Thus it should be no surprise that officeholders in one hierarchy can serve in another almost effortlessly. The papacy merged the rabbinical with the Latin imperial forms. Modern business corporations essentially mimic those original power structures, with CEOs elected dictators or temporary princes. Liberation theology and the derived CEBs began to fill a vacuum created by the concentration of clerical and political authority in the urban centers. Basic ecclesiastical communities were established in places that had rarely, if ever, even seen a priest. The theory asserted that the primitive church, before the imposition of the rabbinical-episcopal hierarchy, was self-constituted and thus also endowed with the grace needed to perform the sacraments. In the established Church, the sacraments were a major source of income and part of the vast financial derivative system through which the Papacy drained the Faithful from cradle to grave. Therefore it was not only the potential for political radicalism that Ratzinger and John Paul II feared. They also saw this as a model of the Latin faith which would deprive the global corporation of Christ of rural income extraction. In fact had it proceeded it might have challenged many more financial and ideological institutions with which the Papacy was necessarily aligned.

The persecution of liberation theology and all its practical elements was more than a theological campaign. Just as the universal inquisition had delivered those it convicted of heresy or other crimes to the “secular arm”, the Holy Office legitimated the Anglo-American Empire’s counter-insurgency campaign. Denied the institutional protection of religious freedom, both clergy and laity became outlaws in the medieval sense, where the Inquisition could declare its victims beyond the protection afforded even the lowliest peasant. While the State pursued Communists, real or imagined, the Latin hierarchy and the Pentacostal sects campaigned against primitive Christians. Thus by the end of the 1980s the pincer movement of Church and State had largely neutralized all the Western organizations for base struggle against oppression—creating an ideological wasteland thoroughly contaminated by possessive individualism and malignant narcissism. This ideological wasteland was saturated with “depleted identity product” and the technology of economic cannibalism.

The Latin hierarchy has always responded to the heresy of Jesus’s “preference for the poor” by insisting that Jesus meant the “spiritually poor” and not the oppressed. By definition every human was “spiritually poor” because of the doctrine of original sin and the principles underlying auricular confession. In the view of the Papacy and episcopate, to prefer the real, materially poor over the “spiritually poor” would itself be sinful. It would violate the diversity, inclusion, and equity principles of the Gospel as taught by the Holy Church. It would distract people from concern for their salvation were they to fight for potable water and safe homes. Instead the Gospel supported the economic and social models which gave the real poor the opportunity for salvation ONLY if they shared in the communion of those who enriched themselves at their expense. Individual salvation was the best thing for which one could pray and pay.

When the last breaths of the post-war liberation movements were being suffocated by overt and covert armed action by the residue of Euro-American imperialism, the survivors were placed on respirators. If they would only submit to artificial resuscitation as atomized, stateless, faithless (and eventually useless) labor, then their souls would be transubstantiated into consumers of digital, synthetic identities. Virtual nutrition and liberation would render struggle unnecessary—and organized, collective struggle impossible.

As many observers draw attention to the deterioration in the quality of real life, it has become clear that the resources available to the populations are devoted to virtual life. Whether it be digital communications technology, so-called virtual reality or that obscenity “artificial intelligence”, the lived world is being dissolved and with it the humans we had been accustomed to see in that world. This is a material and spiritual transformation. However it is dissolution not creation. It is both derivative and synthetic, like opioids. Whether one calls it finance capitalism, the New World Order, or by some other advertising slogan and label, we are witnessing not the destruction of the planet—which will be here long after we are extinct—but the annihilation of humanity as the union of heart and mind, soul, intelligence and corporeality. That is surely what the Latin pontiff and his corporate cartel colleagues have always understood as “salvation”—not deliverance of the poor but deliverance from them, from the useless billions for whom heaven was designed: so that the rich actually inherit the Earth.  



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