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The Pope and the IMF Have Moved Left…and Oh Yes, There’s A Bridge In Brooklyn I’d Like To Sell You Cheap…

July 17, 2015
Bamako - a film that puts the IMF on trial done by Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako. There are many others.

Bamako – a Malian film by Aderrahmane Sissako – that puts the IMF on trial (literally), while showing the impact of its policies not just on Mali, but the whole African continent.

First the Pope, the head of what is arguably, perhaps the most conservative – nay reactionary – social movements in world history since Constantine legitimized its approach so long ago – doesn’t miss an opportunity to sound more leftist than Che Guevara…now the IMF is moving into the ranks of socialists….what is the world coming to? Genuine, deep going change or simple demagoguery? Do the Pope’s statements represent the beginning of a shift in the long history of that institution?;  does IMF position paper mean that much either.  Or are these gestures little more than recruitment tactics, and image polishing approaches, a bit like – as the old saying has it – putting make up on spiritual and economic corpses?

What both institutions ARE responding to – is the shift in world public opinion and their growing isolation – along with that of U.S. Republicans, and the likes of Netanyahu – on the world scene. Of course it’s “nice” to hear the Pope joining forces with Naomi Klein to save the environment from climate change and the IMF – whose whole essence has been to oppose Keynesian economic polices – calling for a bit of redistribution. But it’s difficult to think that the recent actions of both are anything more than good public relations stunts, minor tactical shifts responding to world public opinion. A public has been so bombarded with media garbage finds itself vulnerable to “the new vocabulary” ; like a drowning man it clings to these recent statements, amplifying their meaning…wanting to believe they are the precursors of something, new, something different, something better… it’s a bit sad that people have difficulty seeing through all this. But something more substantial is needed than “a new paper” from the IMF, or  recent statements of a pontiff just prior to his Latin American tour, attacking what has become a very easy target south of the U.S. border with Mexico  – world capitalism.

It’s as if the history of both institutions – the one quite long, the other more recent – are simply shunted aside, ignored, as if it doesn’t exist and doesn’t weigh, and weigh heavily on the present. Let us consider, even briefly the historical context

From its first pogrom in 38 C.E when the entire Jewish population of Alexandria was slaughtered, through the Crusades in which Christian zealots honed their skills killing Muslims in the Middle East by first slaughtering Jews in Germany and France, to the Church’s antipathy towards anything politically democratic from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Paris Commune, through the silence and vast complicity of the Vatican to the Holocaust to the seethingly political and culturally reactionary campaign of the Pope John Paul II with its disturbing cultural and political echos among the American bishops and cardinals, the Catholic Church has been historically consistent. Now we are to believe that a septuagenarian accused of complicity with the Argentinian junta in the torture of Jesuit priests by serious human rights sources has “turned the page” and become the champion of the world’s poor and oppressed masses. What are the institutional changes that are accompanying all these statements? Are they cosmetic? real? Do they exist at all? Where is the needed rigorous self-criticism – the institutional dialogue – that would give the Pope’s unending stream of public statements a bit more weight? Is this an institution, given its history, its thinking, that can make the kind of changes after 2000 years of history that are needed, called for on all sides, but most ardently from people within the church’s fold?

As for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issuing a paper essentially critical of its own policies…it’s enough to wonder if IMF president Christine La Garde hadn’t recently holed up with Pope Francis somewhere between Paris and Rome to devise a common public relations policy – minus a few changes in language. The fact of the matter is, that the policies of the IMF, especially what is referred to as structural adjustment,  – its fixation on austerity where a more generous, socially caring approach is needed – have been largely discredited worldwide for at least thirty-five years since the Third World Debt Crisis broke upon the world in the early 1980s. The Africans have made a movie about it, putting the IMF on trial (Bamako); much of the entire continent of Latin America has rejected its vicious – and from an economic view-point – just plain stupid – criteria for development that has led who continents into growing misery as government spending for infrastructure and social programs have been slashed and weak, tottering economies have been pried open to the onslaught of global capitalism…with the IMF both cheering on the onslaught and enforcing it. The fact that Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ukraine are now caught in the structural adjustment grip only serves to undermine how pervasive and insidious its impact has been. By the way, IMF (and World Bank) policies have also been – outside of U.S. academia – intellectually and academically widely discredited as well. So it is a bit difficult to get too excited by an IMF report entitled “Redistribution, Inequality and Growth” that reads like – at least in part – a self-criticism. On the one hand, “welcome to the world outside your bureaucratic bubble” one could say. But then one could/should ask a number of other questions. Why did it take you a quarter of a century to acknowledge what much of the world has known? Like the Pope’s many statements on the state of the world…what does this report mean in terms of seriously reforming the IMF? Sugar coating? Or a genuinely serious, far-reaching – and badly needed – reform?

Are we, in our rush for allies in our struggles for social justice, to save the environment and in general, to make the world a better, more humane place for us all to such a degree that we forget, cast aside, or more likely, have no idea about the power of history both in general and of these institutions in particular? Certainly, a genuinely democratized Catholic Church, an IMF that actually responds to the growing global inequality with positive, rather than punitive programs would do a world of good. But the institutional history of both suggests that changing paths is a little more difficult than issuing a flurry of public statements or issuing what amounts to as an obscure, if somewhat honest, report. Is the institutional rot so deep that real change is impossible and that a serious movement of reform will simply lead to collapse as was the case with Gorbachev’s attempts to reform Soviet Communism in the late 1980s? Reform, to say nothing of Revolution, is a risky business after all. It takes more than good intentions, nice words. The more retrograde ideas and values inculcated into both institutions run deep. Attempts at reform almost always runs into organizational resistance as vested interests fight to maintain privilege and power. And failed reforms can lead to collapse or that much more spiritual or political darkness. And while “legislation” helps, changing rules and laws are only the beginning of changing mindsets. The ideology of Milton Friedman still guides the vision of the IMF; one still hears – despite the fact that it has been officially rejected – little Latin American Catholic kids in Chicago recently  asking their Jewish teacher  “Why did you kill Christ?”

So hopefully you will excuse my skepticism about either the Catholic Church or the IMF “turning the page.”

Perhaps they will; it is not impossible for institutions or individuals to change – just exceedingly difficult. And it is even more difficult, once a process of change has been initiated, to maintain it. There are an awful lot of people who live off the coat tails of the dead leaders.  And well-intentioned “sincere” individuals – be they a Pope, a Soviet Communist reformer, the president of an international lending institution, or the current president of the United States – are not “miracle makers”…even the best of them. There are, unfortunately, no Messiahs – either secular or religious. But that is a hard one for most people to process. So many people want a “miracle worker” to do the job for us so we all can go back to “living normal lives.” No Messiah’s, and no miracle workers, not Obama, not Bernie Sanders…just us – people fumbling along to find each other. Occasionally we do.



Pope Francis, the CIA and Death Squads by Robert Parry.(note this 2013 article raises some of the same questions I do about the present Pope’s background and his connection to the Argentinian Junta of the late 1970s.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. SK Levin permalink
    July 17, 2015 5:53 am

    Finally someone is thinking / seeing clearly through all this “fumisterie” !

    • July 17, 2015 6:01 am

      Hello friend…have been – believe it or not – thinking of you and Monsieur “le Baron”…I send warm regards to both of you…rjp

    • August 8, 2015 6:47 pm

      Hello Tom..

      I want to reread your comments and think about them.

      In the meantime, let me share a little experience with you. I spoke with a Catholic friend today who gave a sense of the situation “on the ground” concerning how a local church relates to the Pope’s statements on gay marriage. He related how in his church, actually the priest in charge, wanted to say something positive in support of the Pope’s stand, but was hesitant, fearful that anything he might say could get to the regional archbishop who, in turn might cut off needed funding to the parish. In the end after a good month, the priest DID make a very careful statement, without mentioning homosexuality, about how people should not go through life alone, and that partners were important. But the remark actually offended two gay members of the congregation who walked out feeling that the statement wasn’t strong enough. The main point I got out of this (Tom and John) is that on some levels there is a willingness for reform, but that it is politically difficult to make progress.

      I’ll wait a few days and chew over what you have written Tom and get back to you.

      Might add here that I just finished a book in French on “anti-clericalism” in France – 1915 – 2000 which I found quite interesting.

      More soon, thank you for taking the time to engage me on this..I am genuinely quite interested and want to engage in dialogue on the subject as I develop my ideas.


  2. John Kane permalink
    July 17, 2015 1:20 pm

    Well, Rob, quite a read. Wonder if you just got up grumpy or if this has been building for some time. Clearly there will be many (your friend SK obviously one) who share your view of Catholicism (I leave to others any comments about the IMF) — many Catholics and ex-Catholics among them. Yet for me you and they only demonstrate again the old cliche that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals. (Sorry if that offends, but you began this.) Your basic point (as I read you) is that we need to be wary of any claims about rapid and significant change in historic and entrenched institutions. I agree, and know from my life’s work that change in Roman Catholicism is immensely difficult and slow. Yet your sweeping dismissal of Catholic history reads like a left-liberal cartoon. Yes, there have been the outrages you cite, and others. And, yes, Jews especially have experienced the terror of many of those outrages and thus are rightly wary of Catholicism. But to reduce a 2000 year history to those outrages is, for me at least, equivalent to dismissing Jews and Judaism as nothing more than a bunch of greedy shopkeepers and bankers. There is, for me and many (elites as well as masses) very, very much human good in that history. In addition, to reduce the outrages to “Catholicism” is simply unworthy of someone who claims to be a social scientist. Your mention of Constantine should have given you pause. Political (state and economic) power are almost always the primary or fundamental cause of the outrages. Religion too often cooperates and legitimates, but is rarely the fundamental cause. True for the Third Reich as for the current behavior of Israel. Etc. And by the way, would a “democratic” Catholicism really be better?

  3. Chris Kendall permalink
    July 17, 2015 4:59 pm

    Rob, I thank you for putting down in words what you were unwilling to express last night in a social situation.

    As an ex-Catholic, with no intention of returning to the fold, is it possible for me to love a pope simply because he says the right things? It is. The temporal power of the pope resides most signally in his words. In my lifetime, I have not heard a pope speak as Francis does. When he asks, “Who am I to judge?” he is throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery of ecclesiastical power that generations of churchmen have taken for granted. The church, that is, the men who guide it, have seldom, if ever, admitted that they are no better suited to pass judgment on anyone than, well, anyone. The church learned long ago how to turn the threat of damnation into a tidy profit. Hence the Reformation. When a pope says we have a moral obligation to protect the planet, those words have more power in the minds of the faithful than do the laws of nations.

    I know you see me as naive. Perhaps I am, and I can live with that. But I am deeply skeptical of the notion that this pope is in collusion with the IMF to construct an elaborate PR campaign, to shore up their receding power. As for accusations of complicity in torture, they remain accusations, regardless of how serious the sources. I have no opinion about the truth or falsehood of the allegations, and I will not admit them as facts until they are demonstrated to be so. In the scales of the court, accusations do not weigh.

    “By their fruits shall ye know them.” That is true of individuals as it is of institutions. The Catholic Church has had its share of rats running the show, but that does not mean that anyone placed at its head is a rat, nor that he embodies all or any of the corrupt tendencies that have broken to the surface in past centuries. Give peace a chance. Give Francis a chance.

  4. August 8, 2015 5:17 pm


    Many weeks ago I told you that I would respond to your June 15th post on Pope Francis and the hopes of some for substantial change in the Roman Catholic Church. I didn’t do that, and now I have your July 17th post on the pope and the IMF, as well as John Kane’s comments on both, to respond to. However, responding to the complex, thoughtful and detailed posts by you and John will take more time than I have now. I agree that substantial change in the RCC, even under the leadership of a reforming pope–as I see Francis–is a challenging and massive task. But I see hope for some significant change, not radical or revolutionary change, because of past events in our lifetime and the spirit of the present time. First, the past. When the cardinals elected Angelo Roncalli as pope in 1958, no one expected that he would be much more than a caretaker pope for the few years he would probably live, and that his reign would be a welcome and relaxed relief from the 19 years that the autocratic and very active Pius XII ruled. But John XXIII, who truly believed that the Spirit of God is present in all human beings, began the greatest change in the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The initiative taken by Catholic bishops once they realized that John was serious about wanting them to bring the RCC into the modern world resulted in some remarkable documents from the Vatican Council, whose impact is still felt today despite the efforts of the Polish and German popes to turn the clock back to pre-Vatican II times. (I’ll try to spell out some of these at a future time.) A generation of “Vatican II bishops” was chosen under John and even more so under his successor, Paul VI. The Council also stimulated many Catholic laity, religious sisters and brothers, and priests to create a Church that reflected more fully the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. Two examples in the U.S. Church are the powerful statements developed by the bishops in the 1980’s on war and peace in the nuclear age and on the economic system. (John Kane and I did a number of presentations on the nuclear age statement, and he did some on the economic system statement.) Some lay people, religious sisters and brothers, and priests played a very active role in implementing the reforms of Vatican II. Even though John Paul II and Benedict XVI and their Vatican allies tried to suppress or dilute these reforms, they could not wipe out this new spirit that had inspired many Catholics.

    And, though many Catholics have left the Church because of this counter-reform campaign and other reasons, many who have stayed with the Church are still working to make the Vatican II Church a reality. It is these people and the younger generation inspired by this same vision that I think provide hope from our present time for significant change in the Church if Francis lives for five to ten more years. He is not a radical or a revolutionary.He will not push for the ordination of women to the priesthood. He will not change the Church’s opposition to abortion. He may develop a less absolute stand on birth control, and I think he would seriously consider married male priests IF enough bishops throughout the world press him to do so because the dwindling number of priests in many countries is severely limiting their ministry to the people of the Church. That’s a big IF, of course.

    He has made some moves to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, especially in the area of its financial institutions and practices, and he has appointed more progressive bishops in some countries. He has appointed new cardinals from countries which had not been represented in this level of Church government before. He established a council of cardinals from various countries to meet with and advise him on a regular basis. Admittedly, these are small steps toward substantial reform, but they offer hope and energy to Catholics whose spirit is that of John XXIII and Vatican II.

    Though popes since Leo XIII in 1891 have made strong statements about the need to create a social system which provides for the basic human needs of all people, I think that none have spoken with the passion and frequency of Francis about the evils of the present free-market, unfettered economic system which concentrates most wealth and power in the hands of the few and leaves only scraps from the table for many people. Will Catholic clergy and laity, and people of other faiths and philosophies, respond strongly enough and in sufficient numbers to bring about substantial change in our heartless economic system? Only time will tell. But John Paul II, despite his worldwide travels and pop-star rhetoric, never challenged the economic system as has Francis in his two years in office. I am eager to see what he says to the U.S. Congress in September and how the members respond. John Boehner, an active Catholic, may come to regret his invitation. I certainly hope so.

    My comments turned out to be longer than I planned. I appreciate your thought-provoking posts, Rob, and your thought-provoking responses, John. I hope to contribute more to your ongoing discussion in the future.

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