The Vatican and Occupy Wall Street

  • November 2, 2011

Pope Benedict may or may not bless the Occupy Wall Street movement. But an Eastern European former Marxist atheist intellectual has told protesters that they should really preoccupy themselves with the Holy Spirit.

Leading up to November’s G20 economic meeting in France, and as the Occupy Wall Street movement entered its second month, media whoop-whoop made it sound like Benedict’s arrival at the barricades was imminent.

The story turned out to be a torque job so clumsy it would make an apprentice mechanic at Dollar Bill’s Easy Autos blush.

Upon release of a document by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace calling for changes in regulation of global financial markets, Cardinal Peter Kodowo Appiah Turkson was asked if the Vatican is aligning itself with the protest that began Sept. 17 in New York and has spread to other cities, including Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Montreal.

The cardinal prudently replied that all people have every right to demand business be done differently, and the right applies as much on Wall Street as anywhere. No Benedict. No barricades. 

Naturally, reporters rushed to file stories claiming that what wasn’t said was actually what was said. It was left to their audiences to conclude, yet again, that truth is an infinitely variable concept in the journalistic mind.

Still, there was a positive to the predictable media inflation-deflation cycle. It awakened some reporters to Benedict’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which articulates the very model of economic justice that the naïve and incoherent OWS mobs gurgle to express.

To the extent the Holy Father remotely “blessed” the occupation movement, he did so two years before it was even born and, by extension, through Catholic social teaching dating back to Rerum Novarum in May, 1891.

Such prudential distancing was a laudable contrast to camera- mongering celebrities who showed up hoping to get shine time for their “person-of-the-people” personas. Among them, of course, was moviemaker Michael Moore, that roly-poly panjandrum of pseudo-populist poppycock.

Moore styles himself a documentary maker. His work relates to documented truth as a man on a train relates to the lights of a prairie town at night. There’s the same sliding recognition of something passing by outside, and then the dark again.

Being a mere passerby did not dampen Moore’s urge to speak for #OWS, as the movement was immediately twitterized. He happily appeared on TV interviews in the United States and Britain championing the cause about which, as with his films, it turned out he knew little. Pressed by an interviewer on how the occupiers would replace capitalism, Moore blinked like an owl in an optometrist’s chair and elucidated: “Capitalism is evil. It has to be ended.”

Well, that clears things up.

Actually, it fell to the Slovenian academic and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek to clarify what the OWS movement should be, which might be very different from what it might be.

Zizek is a rock star philosopher. Not just a rock star given to “philosophizing” like U2’s Bono, but a renowned academic philosopher who is also the clown prince of social media. In one YouTube clip, he verbally spanks some privileged Western vegans for their “decadence” in refusing to eat meat. In another, he meditates on the cultural significance of the direction toilet water drains in different parts of the world. In his serious writing, he is an atheist obsessed with understanding St. Paul.

Speaking to OWS protesters in New York, Zizek warned against turning their days occupying Wall Street into down payments on nostalgia.

“Carnivals come cheap,” he said, challenging them to take seriously the serious work they have begun. Then he put that work in a religious, indeed explicitly Christian, frame.

“The conservative fundamentalists who claim they are ‘really’ Americans have to be reminded of something: What is Christianity? It’s the Holy Spirit. What is the Holy Spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is here now, and down there on Wall Street are bankers who are worshipping blasphemous idols.”

Who knows when a public intellectual of Zizek’s stature last used such language at a protest rally? Yet his words will hang in the air — at least until Pope Benedict really brings his blessing to the barricades.

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