When Pope Francis makes his first foreign trip as pope to Rio de Janeiro on July 22, protesters who have roiled more than 100 cities in Brazil, clamoring over shoddy public transport and health care, will find a global figure sympathetic to their pleas.
In his first audience as pope, Francis said, “Ah, how I want a poor church, that is for the poor.” In a sermon last week on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where refugees fleeing North Africa and the Middle East drown through the year, the pope decried “an anesthesia of the heart.” In that homily he several times bemoaned “a globalization of indifference.”
As Francis takes his populist theology to the world’s fifth-largest country, Brazil stands as the beacon of Latin America for its free elections and stunning growth. But Brazil is also a case study in a global economic narrative in which unregulated capitalism has compromised democracies of the post-Cold War world.
The occasion for Francis’s July 22 touch down in Rio is World Youth Day, one event outside of Vatican rituals or a White House visit where a pope can expect healthy media attention, unless his talks are boring. That is unlikely, given Francis’s critique of runaway capitalism and the reality awaiting him in Brazil.
The Vatican has announced that the pope will visit a favela, one of the shanty towns that drape the hillsides overlooking Rio. Drug gangs that rule several favelas are an issue as Rio prepares to host the 2016 summer Olympics.
The protests put a spotlight on World Youth Day, the sprawling Catholic festival of faith that draws foreign groups to the host city, with a large financial pump to the local economy. Two million people gathered in Madrid eleven months ago to see Benedict XVI. The former pope chose Rio de Janeiro for the 2013 events that run through July 29, with 3 million people expected.
Brazil is the most populous Catholic country in the world. Despite steady growth of evangelical groups, about 65 percent, or 123 million Brazilians, identify as Catholic. In a move that would be unimaginable in America, where the bishops made insurance-covered contraceptives a political issue to discredit President Obama in the 2012 election, Archbishop Raymundo Damasceno Assis of Aparecida reacted to the June protests, as president of the Brazilian hierarchy, by declaring “solidarity and support to these demonstrations, as long as they are peaceful.”
Archbishop Orani Joao Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro predicted that the protests would not affect World Youth Day; he even idealized the protests as “in some ways similar to the spirit of WYD — the desire to work together for a new world, for a new life, a new society.”
Brazil boomed under the popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2002-2010), a labor leader who modernized infrastructure and used the nation’s timber, minerals and energy largess for education and to expand the middle class. In Lula’s last year the economy grew 7.5 percent against last year’s sharp drop to a mere 0.9 percent.
But even orchestrated growth has blowback in capitalism shorn of restraints. The Brazil protests spread like a California wildfire. Urban transportation is so slow that “have less” workers spend long stretches getting to and from jobs; health clinics in many areas are clogged and severely understaffed.
Against these daily realities, even in a soccer-obsessed country, many people are galled by big-ticket spending for next year’s World Cup (a $2 billion overrun on new stadiums) and the 2016 Olympics with $10 billion in current costs.
“Most people involved in the mobilization don’t see it as anti-capitalism,” Brian McCann, a Georgetown University professor of history, and author of Throes of "Democracy: Brazil Since 1989" (Zed Press) told GlobalPost. “They feel the kind of capitalism imposed on them is unfair. They’re demanding better services for what they’re paying. The political class has fixed the game, collaborating with the wealthiest investors, major construction or real estate magnates in a way that is enriching the few and complicating the lives of the many.”
Popular resentments do not seem directed at World Youth Day, said McCann. “The demonstrators see it as something closer to them, and their world.”
The surge of protests hit President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s anointed successor) from the blind side. An economist and former activist who was tortured by Brazil’s military regime a generation ago, Rousseff quickly proposed a “national pact” to legislate corruption as a felony and pledged a $23 billion investment in urban transport with accelerated spending on health services and education.
“Ms. Rousseff claimed the government loans for stadiums will be paid back in full and do not come from the ordinary budget,” The Economist reported June 29. “Rather, they are subsidized credits from the National Development Bank to construction companies—big funders of political parties.”
Rousseff’s approval plummeted from 57 to 30 percent in national polls in less than two months, but has now climbed back to 49 percent.
The Brazil demonstrations resemble the Occupy Wall Street protests last year that railed against a Faustian bargain between Washington and Wall Street. Occupy demonstrators pointed to companies that outsourced jobs for cheaper labor in foreign countries, and a US government sagged with debt after a generation of tax cuts for corporations and the super-wealthy.
In this view, gutted banking regulations allowed an industrialization of finance that fostered risk ventures, a form of gambling, which ended up with government bail-outs when the housing bubble burst, producing the Great Recession.
“The frustration with a world where so much of the common good has been torn out of partisan politics and handed over to private sector actors is showing up around the world in these protests, significantly by young people,” University of Dayton theologian Vincent Miller told GlobalPost.
Money is not a topic on which future popes tend to opine.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires did so with Rabbi Abraham Skorka in a 2010 book, "Between Heaven and Earth."
“Christianity condemns both communism and wild capitalism with the same vigor,” said Bergoglio. “Someone who operates a business in a country and then takes that money to keep it outside of the country is sinning because he is not honoring with that money the country to which he owes his wealth, or the people that worked to generate it.”
The pope’s spontaneously planned trip last week to Lampedusa, off Sicily, to pray with fishing families and boat people seeking asylum, produced an unscripted sermon that echoed his dialogue with Rabbi Skorka.
“No one in the world feels responsible for this,” he said of the refugee drownings. “We have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility. We have fallen into the hypocritical attitude of the priest and the servant of the altar that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan: We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think ‘poor guy,’ and we continue on our way, it’s none of our business.”
“The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility,” he preached.
“In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.“
Citing the Lampedusa sermon, Italy’s edition of Vanity Fair put Francis on the cover as its Man of the Year.
In that sermon, he spoke of people “who are closed in on their own well-being in a way that leads to the anesthesia of the heart....that at the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies. Forgive us, Lord!”
Francis cut a riveting contrast with Benedict, whose great concern was restoring the religious foundation of Catholic Europe, by making his first official papal trip to the farthest edge of southern Europe, on an island, apologizing to people on the margins, declaring his solidarity with them.
As the adoring World Youth Day crowds greet the pope in Brazil, so will the large crowds who throng papal visits in historically Catholic countries.
How Francis frames his sermons and formal addresses will make news; but the unscripted words and extemporaneous moments are likely to advance a deeper story of the trip.
“Francis’s concern about the ‘globalization of indifference’ raises the question of the church itself as global network of relationships,” said Professor Miller, who is writing a book on the Catholic Church and globalization.
“Can the church — the largest and oldest organization in the world —strengthen ties among communities of the faithful around the world to challenge the harsh treatment of working people in a consumer economy that has no real moral foundation?”
“This is a crucial question for the next generation of Catholics,” he continued. “Social media provide easy means to organize. If the church can show that it has both a spiritual vision and the means for acting upon it, it might hold onto the next generation and help them work for the common good. If it can't, there is little reason to believe they will stay.”
GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.