Wed | Nov 21, 2018

The times they are a-changin’

Published:Friday | April 29, 2016 | 12:00 AM
AP Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Fitzgerald Fieldhouse on the University of Pittsburgh campus on April 25.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that in my lifetime I would see a black two-term president in racist USA. I still don't understand it!

And then there is the Bernie Sanders phenomenon: a Jewish democratic socialist making a good run to become the nominee of the Democratic Party for the presidency of the rabidly capitalist USA. I guess it says something about the American people and the American political system that could allow such radical shifts in political direction.

Two weeks ago (on April 15) breaking his New York campaign, Bernie Sanders flew to Rome, and delivered a lecture inside the Vatican to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Titled 'A Return to Fairness', Sanders, whose wife is Roman Catholic, showed his familiarity and his support for the well-developed and systematic social doctrine of the Catholic Church, which goes back to the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII captioned 'Rerum Novarum' (Latin for 'New Things').

The starting point of Catholic Social Teaching is the scandal of inequality, caused by a system that causes the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Sanders said: "Over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII highlighted economic issues and challenges in Rerum Novarum that continue to haunt us today, such as what he called "the enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of the many".

"And let us be clear. That situation is worse today. In the year 2016, the top one per cent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 per cent, while the wealthiest 60 people own more than the bottom half - three and a half billion people. At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable."




When we young people used to say similar things in the 1960s and 1970s (even though we were quoting the popes), we were branded as 'hotheads' and 'angry young men'. How times have changed when a candidate for US president is saying the same things, and is doing well!

A century after Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Centisimus Annus (the Hundredth Year) commemorating Rerum Novarum, and the Vatican conference Bernie Sanders addressed marked 25 years after that. He went on to say: "The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalisation of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us."

Bernie Sanders has raised the tone of political discourse in the USA, pushing Hillary Clinton and others to the Left. I wish our Jamaican politicians could have said something like this:

"The widening gaps between the rich and poor, the desperation of the marginalised, the power of corporations over politics, is not a phenomenon of the United States alone. The excesses of the unregulated global economy have caused even more damage in the developing countries. They suffer not only from the boom-bust cycles on Wall Street, but from a world economy that puts profits over pollution, oil companies over climate safety, and arms trade over peace. ... The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time, and the great moral issue of our time."

Issues like these used to be discussed in Jamaica, but our intellectuals and politicians have lost their edge and have become part of the problem.

"Some might feel that it is hopeless to fight the economic juggernaut, that once the market economy escaped the boundaries of morality, it would be impossible to bring the economy back under the dictates of morality and the common good. I am told time and time again by the rich and powerful, and the mainstream media that represent them, that we should be "practical", that we should accept the status quo; that a truly moral economy is beyond our reach. Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world's greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism. He has opened the eyes of the world once again to the claims of mercy, justice and the possibilities of a better world."

Go, Bernie!

- Peter Espeut is a development scientist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to