Speaking to grassroots organizers in Bolivia Thursday, Pope Francis made headlines for using the phrase “the dung of the devil” in reference to today’s world economy.
News outlets were quick to run headlines such as “Unbridled capitalism is the ‘dung of the devil’, says Pope Francis,” and “Pope slams capitalism as ‘dung of the devil.’” But here is what we said:
Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.
So what exactly was the target of Francis’ critique?
The pope said he was quoting Basil of Caesarea, a 4th century saint, bishop and theologian who preached at length on the subject of wealth. He has associated himself with Basil’s remarks at least twice before: in a private homily in September 2013 and in a large public audience in February of this year. (RELATED: Watch Pope Francis React To Getting A Statue Of Jesus Crucified On A HAMMER AND SICKLE)
Basil is also widely quoted by Christian advocates for greater economic equality with a line addressed to the rich of his diocese: “The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked.” And in another sermon from the year 368, he said that “by a certain wily artifice of the devil, countless pretexts of expenditure are proposed to the rich.”
The reference to “dung” is most likely a quotation from a letter in which he describes a rich man who decides to become a monk, undertaking the “worthy” change of “treating all your perilous property as mere dung.”
Each time he has quoted Basil, Francis associates the phrase not with money or capitalism itself, but with “idolatry.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines idolatry as worshiping “a creature in place of God,” including many inherently good or neutral things such as “power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.”
Indeed, that connection is as old as Christianity itself: in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that “you cannot serve both God and money,” and in 1 Timothy the Apostle Paul writes that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (RELATED: WikiLeaks Hypes Giant Saudi-Vatican Conspiracy, Gives Zero Evidence)
In his speech Thursday, the pope likewise spoke of idolatry, saying, “once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society.”
Francis admitted that he did not have any clear solutions to the crisis of idolizing money: “Don’t expect a recipe from this Pope.” But he did call working for economic justice a Christian “commandment,” and insisted on “put[ting] the economy at the service of peoples,” rather than the other way around.
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