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An outsider looks at Francis

Juan Cole has this sober and appreciative observation about Pope Francis's trip to Brazil. Unsmitten by papalotry, Cole captures the merits of the trip, perhaps from the perspective of Francis himself.

"There is a lot to like about Pope Francis. He wants to see the church serve the poor instead of primarily the elite (though again, he is no liberation theologian and isn’t interested in practical steps that would change class relationships– he is just interested in doing charity)."

Cole also skewers the U.S. media's take on the visit: "American culture displaces its severe class struggle away from economic issues onto identity politics. We avoid talking about how the working and middle classes are being screwed over by an increasingly wealthy and aristocratic 1% or about how the business classes are destroying the environment of the planet, by obsessing about race and gender instead. So Pope Francis’s tame remarks about silent, inoffensive, celibate gays being all right in the priesthood will generate a lot of comment.  His more challenging remarks, his focus on the needs of the poor and on preserving the environment– the messages well-off Americans need to hear– will be largely ignored in the corporate US media."

Read Cole's whole comment.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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I doubt that many Americans agree with Cole's inflammatory take on reality: that there is a "severe class struggle" going on in the US, or that the working and middle classes are being "screwed over" by the so-called 1%. (cf the fizzle-out of "Occupy Wall Street").    My guess is that Francis' more honeyed words will catch more flies.



Many Americans DO agree with Cole's inflammatory take on reality.  

Note how many times Commonweal has cited him in support of their theories:

Class struggle might be heating up just a little. The workers at the McDonald's, Wendy's and KFC around NYC are on strike right now. "Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages super-sized", They're striking to double their wage to $15 an hour and to unionize.

I think this could go somewhere.

The TV/radio/press coverage I saw gave much more attention to baby-kissing, large crowds and, lately,  gays than to the Latin/Vatican criticism of unbridled capitalist lust. Of course, with both poilitical parties averting their eyes, there are no hot media political personalities to serve as a focus to the coverage of (sorry, Jim) the screwing over of the working and middle classes (not to mention poor, whom even the American left leaves out.)

Really Jim Pauwels? You make not like "severe," or "screwed over," but would you agree that the rich are getting fabulously richer, the poor are getting much poorer, and the middle class are drifting downward? I agree with Cole that the media, in general, is keen to write about identity politics to the detriment of class politics. Even Paul Krugman who regularly goes after the economics behind austerity rarely alludes to any class issues.

Irene Baldwin: Don't eat McDonald's, but I like the slogan.


Class stuggle might go somewhere when the $7.25 an hour busboys in the resturants that serve the elite their $100 dinners, join the strikers at McDonalds. FOX news is covering the raising of the minimum wage as the beginning of an economic war. .I say bring it on..  Even the  fast food association claims that  wages and benefits account for just 30% of the cost of fast food. .Some economic studies show a dollar more in wages will account for a .10 cent increase in a burger. .studies show that costs are being reduced by  bringing in more efficient equipment to reduce labor costs even more.About 4 million workers are working fast food shops now.  Arise!!! the only thing you have to lose is the grease.

Gerelyn: a step above the St. Louis Post Dispatch! and not infrequently the New York Times.

Not sure what you mean, Margaret.  I read the whole thing and the comments below.  Nice that Juan responds without surliness.  O'Leary posted a comment there.   

Here's a link to a site you might like:

(The little Books of Common Prayer are nice, imho.  So is the tiny poodle.)



Whether one thinks there is a class war going on might depend on where one sits.  If I were an adult trying to support myself by working at  McDonald's in New York at $7.50 an hour, I'd probably not be as convinced as you.  It's pretty simple math--if you work a 40 hour week, you're going to earn about $15,000 per year.  How do you live in New York on that kind of money; how could you afford to commute to NYC from elsewhere?  I suspect it's the same in most urban areas, and perhaps elsewhere.  I know some fast food workers are youths working their way through school--but some are self-supporting or trying to support a family..  Data on the minimu wage indicate it has less buying power than it did decades ago.  If you don't like the metaphor of war, how about economic disaster?  It's got to seem that way to many folks, especially with strong indications that US economic and social mobility is no longer as robust.  Certainly some people will pull themselves up by sheer effort and perseverance--but what about the ones just a little bit less gifted?

"would you agree that the rich are getting fabulously richer, the poor are getting much poorer, and the middle class are drifting downward?"

I agree that the rich are getting richer, the middle class has slid downward a bit.  Not sure about the poor getting much poorer; they were already at the bottom, and before the onset of the recession at least, the long-term trend in the US was that the poor were getting less poor.

But none of that amounts to a "severe class struggle."  If anything, the bonds of solidarity and collective action among the poor, the working class and the middle class strikes me as being a good deal weaker than it was when I was growing up in the '60s, when mediating institutions like labor unions and the Catholic Church were a good deal more influential than they are now.  

But primarily, I don't see that the rich are getting richer by exploiting the poor.  To the extent that it is happening via the financial sector, I just think that the rich are getting richer by living on a different planet than everyone else.  The poor are extraneous to the whole thing.  If the wage for McDonald's workers were doubled, those poor that work there would be a little better off for a while, the rich would still continue to make money as if nothing had changed, and the middle class would grumble because a #2 with large fries costs a good deal more than it did before.  The welfare of the poor is pretty much disconnected to anything the rich do, and vice-versa.


Kevin - yes, I agree with your math, and in fact have presented it myself in comments on this site in the past.  If you're arguing that social inequality creates a risk of a perception (whether or not it is based on facts) that the poor are poor because the rich are giving them the shaft, I agree with that, too.  (This was pretty much the basis of President Obama's 2012 presidential campaign, which by the way succeeded.)  

I just don't think there is much evidence that everyone is getting the shaft from the rich.  It's probably more likely that the poor are lined up against everyone else.  The middle class and the working classes depend on the poor's cheap labor as much as, or more than, the rich.  And politically, if the choice is between slashing Pentagon spending, slashing social-insurance programs, or slashing aid to the poor, it's pretty much a truism that the poor lose every time.  But as I said in the previous comment, I don't think this amounts to a "severe class struggle".  It is an opportunity, though, for us to transform hearts.  


A good read for posters here is "Twilight of the Elites" by MSNBC's Chris Hayes.

He shines a lot of cold, clear light on many of the US fantasies that we think are actually truth, not the least of which is the whole Horatio Alger idea of  meritocracy.

There is a middle way between Jim Pauwels and Gerelyn (if you will bear with me taking them as end-points in this discussion).   There are real class issues in the US, including but not limited to economics, but very few Americans are comfortable today talking about class distinctions.  And so there are divergences that are meaningful - per Gerelyn - but limited public outrage that uses the rhetoric of class struggle - per Jim Pauwels.

On increasing social inequality in the  US. Sometimes the best strategy is to amass evidence that contradicts the shibboleths - like the US as the land of opportunity: See also the ny times write up on the study. 

Producing the evidence isn't always enough - but it is a start and better than sloganeering. And I am with those who see a trend, and a need to keep working on creating one. 


Jim Pauwels, if the welfare of the poor is pretty much disconnected from the rich sucking up all the wealth created by the productivity of the working class, as you suggested at 6:02, then why bother to try to transform hearts, as you suggest we can do at 6:14? Everyone is beautiful in his or her own way.

I'll make you this deal: If Barack Obama, who felt he had to present us with such unObamanian characters as Tom Gates and Tim Geithner in his first term (wonder where that feeling came from), can restrain himself from putting Larry Summers in charge of the Fed, I will concede that the playing field is not as tilted as I think it is.

I would like to see Jim P's take on Mary's words: "The poor will be filled with great things and the rich will go away empty." Or is that the poison of the Magnificat?

Bill - I take those words to mean just what they say.  But God fulfilling his promise, and more than fulfilling what we can imagine, doesn't equate to a "severe class struggle".  That's the language of Marxism.  

If there are inequalities and injustices, as there are, we should work to avert class struggle.  We should try to bring about justice AND sow peace.  

if the welfare of the poor is pretty much disconnected from the rich sucking up all the wealth created by the productivity of the working class, as you suggested at 6:02

I didn't suggest that.  I said that the rich - those that pursue wealth via the financial sector, anyway - build wealth in ways that has pretty much nothing whatever to do with the working class.  Their services aren't needed anymore.  Labor-free wealth creation solves a lot of problems, from a certain point of view.

FWIW, I don't know which situation is worse: that the rich get rich by exploiting the working classes; or that the rich get rich with a notebook computer and an Internet connection, and the working classes are not a stakeholder in the process.

In a sense, I think Cole agrees with me on this point regarding the irrelevance of the working classes, inasmuch as he decries the 'robotization' of the economy. Robots also can consign the working classes to irrelevance, although I think the danger is overstated.  Far worse for the American worker is that workers in the developing world are so much cheaper, and the mobility of capital and the means of production, and advances in logistics, have surmounted the limitations that formerly required goods to be manufactured relatively close to their destination markets.

If you've followed my comments on this topic over the years, you also know that I agree that there is still a lot of labor exploitation taking place, some of which has put capitalists in the 1% club (cf the Waltons).  Where this happens, Catholic social teaching provides us with some correctives to our perspective, some remedies and a call to action.

I don't know to what extent Catholic social teaching has really dealt with the problem of the irrelevance of the working classes.  If the rich don't depend on the poor, if the bond of mutual dependence has been severed - that seems a relatively new situation in the history of humankind.


Well, Jim, what you said was, "The welfare of the poor is pretty much discoonected to anything the rich do and vice versa." If in your latest response you mean that bits and bytes and robots, by themselves and without human intervention, have made the 1 percent so rich that the 1 percent of the Gilded Age look like poor orphans in comparison, you are getting a bit ahead of the story. That may be where we are going. It is not where we were in 1980 when America decisively turned its back on socialist collectivist etc. etc. solidarity and decided we can spend our own money better than the government and it's every man and woman for itself. That's how we got to where we are.

The productivity gains that positively astounded (he said) Alan Greenspan were produced by fewer workers using neat-o electronics the capitalists bought. The fewer workers were not cut in on the new profits. And, of course, those who were laid off to reach the employer's goal of fewer workers got nothing from productivity gains. They were told to suck it up and stop "taking" from the rest of us. The decisions on sharing (or not sharing) the new profits of productivity were made by a small group of people who now are in a position to decide everything else about the economy the rest of us suffer from. How to cut the pie does indeed affect the poor and the working and middle classes. The cutting knife has not been wielded democratically for going-on 40 years.

All one has to do is look at to see how minimum wage rates, adjusted to 1996 USD values, have fluctuated over the years.  Between 1980 and 1989 there was an almost 30% drop in the value (consistent with the years of the Reagan administration), a slight bump up during the Bush/Dem congress years and the Clinton/Repub years that only halfway recovered the drop, then a steep dropoff during the Bush/Repub years that dips back up to 1983 levels in Obama's first year before dropping off again.


Interesting article on the front page of the NYT business section today:  "Inequality in America, the Data Is Sobering":

If you click on the little Multimedia box at the left, you'll see where we stand compared to other countries.  



Jim P. --

You seem to think that owenership of stocks has nothing to do with the income of the working poor,  But owners are responsible for the acts of corporations' boards, and the boards establish the pay of the workers.  While many industrial corporations have sent their works overseas, most haven't.  As for the finantial markets where humongous profits are made, if you include Wall Stree, then buys and sells corporations (that's what it's for).  Further, you and I and anyone else whose retirement fund invests our money are responsible for the wages of the workers whose corporations we own. 

Here are some of the latest figures and charts showing the utterlly ridiculous income disparity in the U. S.  From the Columbia Journalism Review.

I think Cole makes some good points; the right people aren't listening to Francis' messages, such as they are, and the mainstream news media is largely off trying to find some big doctrinal shift (there isn't one) in Francis's comment that he does not judge gay people. And even though he's said we need better theology about women, the door to the priesthood is still shut. 

However, granting Cole most of his points, I expect that if Jesus Christ came back right today, he would act an awful lot like Francis--blessing people, joking with them, giving them the thumbs up, not being afraid in a traffic jam, cradling the infirm, embracing addicts, and basically telling them that God loves them and wants to be their friend forever. 

Maybe Francis is only "doing charity," but in going where the poor people are and putting the camera on them, he's urging the rest of us to do more than charity. 

All this ought to be any pope's m.o., but it's so darn rare that it seems almost like a miracle when it does occur.


You cannot run for cover because there are "advocates" for the poor who prefer violence in pursuing equality. If we preach Christ Crucified, then we die for the downtrodden rather than kill for them. The problem is that the majority of the Christian world is permeated by the obsession with money. The conversation is always about money, titles and possessions. The clergy cater to the rich as do most Christians. Several years ago making the rounds was a picture of a young man sitting on his Roll Royce with the caption: "Poverty Sucks." The Magnificat is far from the hearts of most Christians. 

Gerelyn - the author of that NY Times piece seems to long for a little more class warfare, and is puzzled that it isn't happening.  He seems to agree with me that "severe class struggle" is not much of a reality. 


Hi, Ann, In my view, the situation regarding the rich and the poor is such that it it resists the sort of generalizations that are necessary to support a simplistic class-conflict narrative.  Thus, some rich certainly do exploit poor workers (e.g. the owners of Wal-Mart, Nike), but others don't seem to (e.g. the owners of Microsoft, Google).  (FWIW, I am plucking these examples from Forbes' list of the wealthiest billionaires - people who certainly are in the 1%.)  

At the same time, numerous instances of worker exploitation take place in small businesses (the sector that creates 2/3 of all new jobs in the US), most of which aren't owned by billionaires, many of which aren't owned by millionaires.  The poor get the shaft from all classes and all sides.  

 When worker exploitation occurs, we should stand in solidarity with those who are exploited, and we should work to improve their conditions (peaceably, to the extent that is possible).  When exploitation is not occurring, we should take care not to tar the good actors with the same brush used on the bad actors.  On the contrary, we should praise and encourage owners who have created sustainable business models that pay large numbers of workers a living wage.

I don't find class-warfare rhetoric very helpful in this regard.  





Jim, if Cardinal Bernardin held the door for you, the least I could do is curtsy for you. Do you think you could find a modicum of time with your musician responsibilities to read about the severe class struggle in the U.S. and the working and middle classes being 'screwed over' by the so-called 1%? Francis’, Bishop of Rome honeyed words and show time gestures have to be backed up with appropriate intellectual work to authentically prepare for rigorous people and planet work to really impress his billion or so parishioners and convince them to join him or rather that he join them in our momentous twenty-first century task to restore the planet and help the inhabitants of our earth to survive. Thank you in advance, Jim.  Marie.



Hi, Marie, your comment seems to require some sort of reply on my part, but I confess I'm not entirely sure what to say, except that various items I must have mentioned in my commenting here over the years seems to have stuck with you.  Fwiw, I actually spend very little time these days in liturgical-music pursuits, a function mostly of the liturgical music leadership in our parish these days, which is in the breathtakingly-exceptional category.  Also fwiw, I have read a fair amount on the class divisions in the US, as well as church social teaching on this topic.  Different people of good will can each look at the same problem and arrive at different diognoses of the problem and recommend different regimens of treatment.  


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