America's prickly exorcist

Capitalism has felt the ire of the Pope.

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BILL CLINTON never blushes. But, facing the Pope, even he might have felt ashamed. Missouri is a state of red-necks without red faces. But Pope John Paul's presence there should have coloured the conscience of all America.

Pope and President confronted each other in a morality drama: saintliness sat down with sin, service with selfishness. The President's vices eerily reflected the Pope's virtues. This, however, was more than play: the symmetry was fearful. The meeting was of historic importance, barely noticed now, but, after time for evaluation, sure to be remembered. It was the moment when the Pope who saw off Communism tackled the next great Satan on his hit-list: American capitalism.

For entertainment value, the stark encounter in Missouri was outclassed by the stagier courtroom drama in Washington. So we have heard little about it. As a headline story, "Impeachment" beats "Pope". The Lewinsky affair has swallowed up more than can be decently mentioned, for the media love a lubricious tale. Journalists have chased the President down Monica's maw, where nothing of lasting interest is visible. When the Pope was in Cuba, the world almost missed the launch of his crusade against capitalism, because the Lewinsky affair was just starting. Now attention has been deflected from his invasion of the capitalist heartland, because Monica's saga is coming to an end.

One of the blessings of being a Pope is that you are the only head of state exempt from diplomatic sophistry. You can sit down with a potentate and speak to him as a priest. You can command an audience of a thousand million and treat them to truths they do not wish to hear. You can speak to the world with the power of a dazzling claim: to be a universal voice of conscience. In Cuba, John Paul told Castro to change, but he also took the opportunity to address America from just offshore. He attacked greed masked as profit, and condemned American trade sanctions against the poor. Monica, however, had enticed the reporters out of earshot. Now, while the newsmen are sweating away in Washington, the Pope has been in St Louis, condemning the bloodiest American heresy: "choice" licensed to slaughter unborn babies. And he has reminded Americans of their history of unjustly exploiting labour in the most glaring instance: the subjection of slaves.

John Paul's target audience is not tuned in. Most Americans still think of the Pope as one of the good guys of the Cold War: an ally against Communism, a spokesman for freedom. It is true that of all political evils, he hates totalitarianism worst. In his native Poland he endured Nazism, studied in secret, served "the Church in silence" under Communism. He fought, however, not to replace oppression with exploitation; not for freedom unrestrained, but freedom in responsibility; not for capitalism, but for justice.

It is easy to mistake Catholicism for a liberal creed - a wet conservatism - because it treasures the individual person and tries to bind the state. The truth, however, is that the church has always preached a social gospel and the present Pope is one of its most eloquent exponents. Merely "economic logic", he often says, leads to crass materialism, and the profit-motive to corruption. Multinational mega-capitalism is immoral because it evades the social constraints that laws embody and courts impose. Governments must favour the poor. Land is worth more than money, peasants are worth more than profits. So conservation can defy capitalism and the Third World can claim a just price for its produce. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pope is a "watered-down Marxist".

Catholic social doctrine is summed up, says John Paul, in the word he gave to Poland: solidarity. This means seeing employees as neighbours, brothers and images of God. Tell that to the downsizer at work. It shows, in a pitilessly practical way, where mere capitalism ends and unalloyed Catholicism begins. Let no one be misled. In the critique of capitalism, this Pope will never pipe down. "The teaching and spread of her social doctrine," he warns, "are part of the church's evangelising mission." Christ said to Peter: "Get thee behind me, Satan, for your thoughts are not God's thoughts." This Pope is determined never to hear the reproach of worldliness from his God.

John Paul has targeted America as the embodiment of capitalist excess. In this, as in everything he does, he is simply being true to Catholic tradition. One of the so-far unremarked centenaries of 1999 is the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's condemnation of what he called "Americanism". Under this heading, Leo included ill-assorted errors: the claim that the church should imitate secular models of democracy; indifference to oaths (a point on which President Clinton badly needs instruction); and the preference for hustle over holiness. His loudest complaint, however, was against the mistake Americans still most commonly make: the idea that you can be fulfilled by simply following your own impulses, doing "what a man's gotta do" - even if it means gun-toting in the street. America's secular saints are lone rangers, whom society needs, but who do not need society.

The American dream is based on belief in natural human goodness. America is the land of opportunity to cash in on virtue, where you are taught to "feel good about yourself" and "find yourself" in therapy. Catholicism, by contrast, encourages you to feel badly about yourself: otherwise, you will never start to get better. Catholics feel uncomfortable everywhere - unremitting unease is part of being Catholic. But they feel extra-uncomfortable in America, despite being by far the biggest communion in the land. They have always been taunted with unamericanism, and over-compensate by keeping the stars-and-stripes in the sanctuaries of their churches. Or they protest too much in singing embarrassingly patriotic hymns. They have been told at school that their nation was founded by puritans and made great by the Protestant work ethic. In their textbook histories, civil liberties are assumed to have been a dissenters' invention. Despotism and popery are represented as historic allies. Catholicism has been tainted by association with reviled minorities - Irish in the last century, Hispanics today. Reverence for Catholic devotions - contemplation, mysticism, mental prayer and the sacramental life - seems out of place in the homeland of the business ethic.

Today, no dearly held American prejudice or practice is safe from John Paul's criticism. Against abortion and capital punishment he proclaims the sanctity of life. Against moral relativism he defends absolute truth. He enjoins feminists to respect a male priesthood, gays to seek counselling. He reviles consumerism and "super-development" among the malls. He calls for the priority of spiritual values in the land of liposuction. He condemns the one thing of which almost all Americans approve: bombs on Iraq. Yet he is probably the most admired man in America, where they love prophets and plain speakers who do not have to be obeyed. When they start to get his message, will Americans turn away?

I hope not. I love America, not for what she is said to be, but for what she is. I have lived there for 16 months and have seen a different America, unrecognisable from superficial inspection but close to the Pope's own heart. American culture is not genuinely the product of rampant individualism, but of historic values of solidarity. Mainstream America lives in small towns, where everyone knows everyone else, or neighbourhoods where people feel they belong to each other. Democratic decision-making touches levels unplumbed in Europe. Repugnance from class distinctions makes good manners easy to come by and bad manners undiscriminating in their effects.

It was never self-help that made America great, but mutual support. In the formative era of the modern American identity, for every gunslinger in the street or maverick in the corral, there were thousands of citizens in stockades and wagon trains. Liberal democracy was not the only modern doctrine America exemplified for the world: it was also the home of early socialist experiments in collective utopianism. John Paul's critique is an outpouring of historic sympathy. He is calling America home.

His campaign against the great Satan is therefore a sort of exorcism. America can be self-reformed without ceasing to be herself. Capitalism can be purged of atheism and immorality, gluttony and greed, without endangering freedom and democracy. Individualism can be prized in a value system from which selfishness has been prised out. Profit can be virtuous, when it pays just prices.

The Lewinsky imbroglio is mercifully forgettable: another presidency besmirched, another administration mired, another abuse of power, another political stitch-up, another little death of decency. It has been a representative event of our times, but will change nothing in the long run. The Pope's last crusade, however, has world-shaping potential. He has re-launched ideological struggle, just when the pundits thought history was over.

John Paul longs to preside over Christianity's 2,000th birthday. Now he has ensured that the new millennium will begin with a kind of Armageddon: a war of words in which the "Angelic Pope", predicted by prophetic tradition, takes on capitalism - the last Antichrist.

Felipe Fernndez-Armesto's books include `Millennium and Truth: a History'.

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