The pope, the US and the golden calf

Pope Francis is in the United States this week as the most dynamic — even transformational — pope in modern history. But the pontiff, whose words and actions have reinvigorated the church’s teachings on poverty and ending human suffering, is touching down in a nation whose Congress and laws are in many ways at odds with his teachings and beliefs. On issues like fighting poverty, creating economic opportunity, world peace and even addressing global warming, Francis has not minced words about the consequences of our actions. The fact is, the U.S. serves as a case in point of many of the papal arguments. Inequality and social unrest in American society today are not inevitabilities — they are the consequences of the choices we make as a society.

Over the past 35 years, those societal choices have allowed the haves to far outpace the have-nots. We embraced policies like trickle-down economics, welcomed — even encouraged — the advent of financial institutions that are too big to fail, and turned  a blind eye to corporate interests that bilked our system and outsourced our jobs. As  a result of these policies, we lag behind other nations in the developed world in terms of income and economic mobility. The jobs that provide access to the middle class are increasingly out of reach for hardworking Americans, and the programs the poor rely on to make ends meet in our society are increasingly under attack. As the pope said earlier this summer on a trip through Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, the poor are being sacrificed at the “altar of money,” while the rich worship a “golden calf.”

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To make matters worse, the same policies that have outsourced American jobs for decades are solidifying economic inequality in other nations around the world. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, for instance, which was fast-tracked by Congress earlier this summer, solidifies unimaginable conditions for workers in places like Vietnam by making it easier for corporations to outsource jobs to cheaper labor markets. There is no doubt that American workers will suffer as they are forced to compete with workers making just pennies per hour, but so too will those workers in sweatshops abroad whose incomes will never rise.

Francis had the courage to address this head-on: “The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” The question is whether or not we have the courage to recognize these facts as well, and reject a policy that will undoubtedly harm workers in America and ensure impoverishment abroad.

The Holy Father has set an example for how we should treat others from around the world. He has spoken eloquently and compassionately to the plight of migrants fleeing violence, and those seeking a better life. He has set an example of how we can act with compassion and justice to immigrants — not hate and discrimination.

Perhaps most striking of all, Francis has guided the church into acknowledging climate change, and human kind’s influence on our environment, at a time when extremist rhetoric completely disregards the impending threats. The papal encyclical released this June left no doubt. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” The encyclical continues, “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.”

As a society with the means to act and the leverage to influence others, we have an obligation to heed the pope’s words. Our actions — and inactions — have tremendous impact. The American people are well aware of this, which is why politics in this country has taken a populist tilt in recent years. The question is whether politicians in Washington are smart enough to catch up with the people they represent. Pope Francis’s visit is a clarion call — will we listen?

Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District and has served in the House since 2003. He sits on the Education and the Workforce and the Natural Resources committees.