Gehan Gunasekara: Pope comes at time of fresh thinking


Gehan Gunasekara says Pope Francis has struck a chord in the developed world as well as the Third World.

Pope Francis has surprised with his spontaneous walks among the faithful and his homely style.  Photo /  AP
Pope Francis has surprised with his spontaneous walks among the faithful and his homely style. Photo / AP

Acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's statement that the late President Hugo Chavez must have exerted some influence in the heavenly realm for a South American to be elected Pope, may not be far off the mark.

Leaving divine intervention aside, Pope Francis' pronouncements on the need for the Catholic Church to live in the real world and to deal squarely with issues such as inequality, combined with his personal style of modest living, resonate strongly with opinion in Latin America and elsewhere.

The new Pope is undoubtedly conservative on social issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception but these issues are in reality peripheral to the concerns of a great majority of individuals who are mainly concerned with the daily struggle for health care, feeding and educating their children and putting a roof over their heads.

Here Pope Francis has struck a chord not only in the Third World but with people in the developed world who are just as concerned about the growing gap between the middle class and a small elite who control wealth and power.

The elite's unwillingness to pay their fair share of tax has recently been highlighted by the predicament of the tax haven of Cyprus where radical solutions have been proposed including the outright expropriation of a portion of citizens' bank deposits (the citizens it turns out are mainly rich expatriates). Isn't this the very communism we were for so long asked to fear?

The proposal, as it happens, was made by the European Union banks who were asked to help in the bailout of the Cypriot government.

The Pope's stance on social issues aside, Francis might even sit in the camp known as "liberation theology" despised by the Vatican hierarchy and by former Pope John Paul II.

But Pope Francis may prove to have a similar effect on capitalism to that exerted by John Paul II on the downfall of communism. Capitalism, in its classical model, is well and truly in decline throughout Latin America.

Hugo Chavez' redistribution of his country's oil income on a huge scale and the widespread accessibility of health care (thanks to the infusion of Cuban doctors) to millions who were previously deprived of it are well known.

However similar trends have occurred in neighbouring countries including Bolivia and in Brazil, often seen as the next China, the redistribution has created a middle class and narrowed the wealth gap.

Much of the continent has been in the grip of socialist or left-leaning governments for a decade or more and, contrary to the Washington pundits, the sky has yet to fall in.

There is also, surprisingly, much in common between the new Chinese leadership led by President Xi Jinping, and the new Pope.

Both have railed at the evils of income inequality and environmental degradation. And both have set a new standard of personal austerity in their lifestyles.

In China, Communist Party officials have been told to stay at modest one-star hotels and to host banquets of no more than four dishes (usually an insult by Chinese standards).

These injunctions are being adhered to with policing by countless citizens on internet blogs.

What does this trend auger for New Zealand and the wider world?

First of all, income redistribution is no longer seen in derogatory terms.

The Latin American fad has yet to spread to the United States but has clearly taken hold elsewhere.

Perhaps President Barack Obama's successors can take comfort that spreading wealth more evenly does not result in electoral or economic suicide. Here in Aotearoa we can be emboldened to look for novel solutions.

For example, the cost of strengthening historic buildings to withstand earthquakes is a ticking bomb.

Why not adopt the Cypriot solution and simply impose a one-off levy on all bank accounts, incomes over a certain amount, rents and mortgage payments?

Alternatively why not impose a capital gains tax? To be sure this will amount to shifting income from one group to another but it will be shifting it from those better able to pay to those who are not.

May the revolution begin!

Gehan Gunasekara is an associate professor in commercial law at the University of Auckland.

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