The pursuit of Mammon and the quest for Christian piety have always had a very uneasy relationship. The evangelists record Jesus Christ as saying that it would be easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven. The new pope, Francis, has reopened the debate by condemning in very strong terms the prevailing economic system that has placed money, and not men and women, at its very centre. The pope was deeply moved when he saw with his own eyes the deprivation produced by widespread unemployment in Sardinia. He told his audience that without work there could be no dignity. Francis had a strong message against the globalized economic system, which, he alleged, was taking away the dignity of human beings. This is a new voice emanating from the Vatican, which has always looked at the problems of the poor with sympathy but has never related poverty to the dominance of a particular economic order. The Roman Catholic church has never been anti-capitalist.
The novelty of the message is, however, not entirely unsurprising. The new pope perhaps indicated this when on assuming the holy office he chose to take the name, Francis, as a tribute to the saint, Francis of Assisi. He has also taken steps to cut back on many of the ostentatious displays of opulence associated with his ministry. In spite of these gestures, the problematic relationship between wealth and the Church cannot be ignored. It is undeniable that the church of Rome is one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. The Roman Catholic church is known for its enormous acts of charity but those acts are aimed at providing relief for the poor rather than at eradicating the phenomenon of poverty. It is also a fact that the faith of the poor is one of the pillars of the Church, and, indeed, of all religious beliefs. What aggravates the entire situation is an irony: the ideology that addresses the issue of poverty and the setting up of an equitable world — socialism — is seen by the Church as the embodiment of anti-Christ since socialism also preaches atheism. But as Pope Francis well knows, it is possible to have a dialogue between Christianity and the less dogmatic forms of socialism. In Latin America, such an interface has enriched the Catholic church. Perhaps by speaking so openly and eloquently against the worship of money and the economic system that produces it, the pope was calling for an enlargement of that conversation.