At the second WMPM (World Meeting of Popular Movements), held in Bolivia in 2015, after the first which took place in Rome in 2014, President Evo Morales presented Pope Francis with a cross composed of a hammer and sickle. Reading the speech given by the Pope at the last Meeting (Rome 2016) – this time with another president as guest, Pepe Mujica, the Tupamaro guerillero who led Uruguay’s government until recently, but without Bernie Sanders who was invited but too taken up in the electoral campaign to attend – one could say that this anomalous crucifix has become the new symbol of Bergoglio’s church.
I say ‘could’ because I know that we have to be careful here. And yet we cannot fail to realise that Francis’s pontificate has imprinted on Vatican policy a turn of major dimensions.
Something analogous had already been done by his extraordinary predecessor, John XXIII, with the historic Second Vatican Council convened at the beginning of the 1960s, whose application was sharply reduced by the following pontificates. Nevertheless, the real qualitative leap in Bergoglio’s language is striking, in particular in his meetings with the movements.
This is true not so much, or not only, in terms of his denunciations, which by now have become explicit, of what he does not literally call capitalism but clearly so intends (‘that unjust structure’, dominated by the ‘primacy of money’, ‘which comprises all the exclusions’, ‘makes people into slaves, robs them of their liberty’, and ‘idealises infinite progress’ and unconditional ‘efficiency’). The main novelty does not lie, in fact, only in the force of the denunciation of the present state of things but in the identification of a historically existing enemy and in the subjectivisation of the agent of change which had been ‘domesticated’, ‘anaesthetised’.
It is to the exploited, to the victims of the system that the Pope is now turning, inviting them not to just watch ‘with folded arms’ but to ‘pass’ – as the final document of the Rome meeting states – ‘from the phase of resistance to that of appropriating political power, from the social struggle to the electoral struggle’. In two words: to pass from solidarity to struggle, from charity to politics.
Of the church’s exhortations to involvement in politics we Italians in particular have a long experience, and it is precisely this intrusion that we have denounced and fought because it was an invitation to support the party which called itself (and really was) the representative of the Vatican, the Christian Democratic Party, in its anti-communist crusade. Other countries underwent analogous experiences although to a lesser extent than Italy where the influence of the powerful Roman Curia was so great. By contrast, the invitation to politics launched by Pope Bergoglio has a very different stamp, which can be gauged by the sarcastic contempt with which his actions are covered by the Italian press – ‘Pope Francis blesses the social centres’ (organs of the extreme left), ‘Bergoglio meets with Leoncavallo’ (the best known of these centres), ‘Zapatistas, Marxists, indignados, all visiting the Pope’ – these are some headlines from the main newspapers close to the seats of power.
To repeat, the Pope’s words represent a new level not only due to their very precise indication of the adversary to be attacked – capital (‘money’) – but because his is a call to protagonism on the part of the victims: ‘you are putting up’, he says in addressing the poor, ‘until you call economic policy into question’, and until ‘social policy becomes policy by the poor and not for the poor’, in other words, until you leave paternalism behind and take your destiny into your own hands – until you become a political subject and no longer an object of charity.
Naturally, there is no talk here of ‘class struggle’ as the motor of history as in our Marxist tradition; instead the word ‘people’ is used, which is of course different. However, the world that is being invited ‘to popular mobilisation’ is an ever vaster one that has grown in our society where work is increasingly compartmentalised and deprived of rights, where the informal economy is spreading, where a working class that is economically and culturally homogenous increasingly appears to be a minority phenomenon, where the subaltern are traversed by many contradictions, and where social exclusion is growing apace. It is a reality the left has difficulty in dealing with and which it is often still incapable of organising; and precisely this is what has given rise to its crisis.
A glance at the 97 organisations from 68 different countries that met at the last WMPM immediately reveals a great similarity, better, a coincidence with the protagonists of our World Social Forums who have based their strength in the most marginalised sectors. It is no accident that it was Stedile, the historic leader of Brazil’s landless movement, member of the Council of the Forums that arose in Porto Alegre, who was also one of the protagonists of the meetings promoted by Pope Francis, named after the three ‘t’s: Terra, Techo (shelter), Trabalho (work); and that the questions faced are also similar: common goods (starting with the struggle against privatisation of water), a universal wage, and food sovereignty, which has been sacrificed by the power of the big agriculture and food multinationals (indeed, at the last meeting in Rome the paladin of this struggle – Vandana Shiva – was present).
Does everybody agree on everything then? Of course not. Beginning with so-called civil rights (abortion, the right to put an end to one’s own life), which are certainly very important. Still, in terms of these problems there is an unprecedented opening today, with a sense that diversities ought not to prevent believers and non-believers, as well as the faithful of other religions, from working together. And a breach has been opened by the feminist movement since the gender question has been given full recognition in the Pope’s words.
How could all of this happen? Bergoglio’s personal role – his courage in confronting an ecclesiastical apparatus that is still very conservative – has certainly favoured a veritable reversal of Vatican policy. But it would not have been possible if it had not been stimulated by the changes that have occurred in the last decades, which have produced a global crisis of capitalism, putting an end to the illusion of a positive modernity, having generated the most extreme inequality in history and which is corroding – or ‘atrophying’ to use Pope Francis’s words – democracy, ‘dominated by the enormous power of the media groups’. If this process is occurring it is because the barbarisation of the world has by now set off cries of alarm. The only ones who seem not to notice this sign of the times are the political forces which call themselves left but have ended by surrendering to neoliberalist and globalised capitalism.
Taking into account the respective political and cultural autonomies, and without simplification but also without preconceived rigidities, what is happening in the Christian Church concerns us; and it is a good thing.
I remember the thesis of the Ninth Congress of the Italian Communist Party at the beginning of the 1960s when John XXIII and the Council were opening up new horizons that also helped us secular people and communists to acquire a less myopic vision of the reality of the Catholic world. A passage was inserted into that document – on the initiative of Togliatti himself – which read: ‘a religious faith authentically lived can contribute to an anti- capitalist critique’. Today this seems still clearer even if the counterforces, many of them within the Church itself, are involved in a dangerous counteroffensive.
At any rate, it is essential to multiply the occasions for exchange and working together. Among them there is the work in progress of the group created by Transform and the secretariat of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education with the project of a summer school held in September 2018 on the island of Syros with the support of Greece’s University of the Aegean. It is a Christian-Marxist dialogue on the contents of training. The first meeting, lasting two days at Castel Gandolfo, was very interesting and fruitful.
We at Il Manifesto have distributed the book containing Pope Francis’s interventions at the three meetings of the WMPM as a supplement to our daily newspaper (the only daily in Italy that still uses the title ‘communist’), obviously with the agreement of the Vatican. This too is a way of aiding the dialogue.