As the world faces a food crisis, the pope stays rich, comfortable

Column by Kathryn Hogg

Much has been made over Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States this week, because the pope is important. The man is incredibly rich and powerful. He is, according to what I was taught to believe in Catholic school, infallible.

Benedict is a proponent of conservatism within Catholicism. He has spoken out against gay rights, women’s rights and other religions.

For full disclosure, I personally identify as post-Catholic. I never quite bought that whole “infallibility” thing. The pope is not only human, he’s elected by other humans (exclusively male humans, of course). Various popes have made some very bad decisions over the course of the long history of Catholicism, and they have contradicted each other.

The most useful aspect of Catholicism, in my opinion, is the value of social justice that I was taught in high school. So many Catholics, including those in my family and those who have been my classmates, are good people who consider their religion a moral guide in this sense.

I have witnessed activism rooted in the idea of Catholic social justice: feeding the poor, educating the uneducated, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless. I have also seen those efforts flounder from lack of funding from the Church, and I’ve seen them abandoned.

The frenzied coverage of the pope’s visit makes much of Benedict’s Prada shoes but stops short of mentioning the shocking hypocrisy of the Vatican and the Catholic Church. When the pope says goodbye to President Bush and flies back to his throne in Vatican City, he’ll be sitting on billions of dollars, all during an ever-worsening food crisis that affects people around the world.

While Vatican City is in control of an unspeakable amount of money — literally unspeakable, since the Vatican is so secretive that it is difficult to gauge its actual worth — food prices are increasing at a crushing rate. People of many nations are unable to provide for themselves and their families.

Again, I was a bad student of Catholicism, and I’m generally the last person you’d expect to see referring to the Bible in a column, but I seem to recall something about a camel having an easier time passing through the eye of a needle than a rich man through the gates of heaven.

I’m not sold on the idea of an afterlife, but it seems like more “good” Catholics should be doing some talking about this. Prada shoes before feeding the poor? A priceless Vatican art collection when people are starving to death? Where has social justice gone?

The pope’s fortune and his opulent reception by the Bush administration during the same week that the food crisis has come to a head and that people are rioting for help should make Catholic Americans question their highest religious leaders’ abilities to make truly moral decisions.

Don’t the clergy take a vow of poverty? At what point does that vow become void? The incredible privilege of the highest officials in the Catholic Church is the tip of the iceberg. I’m not getting into the selling of indulgences, the use of forced and unpaid labor during World War II, the more recent sexual abuse scandals, or the persistent sexism and anti-gay bigotry of the Church.

But it is not individual Catholic people that I take issue with. My family is mostly made up of Catholics, and they are some of the most moral, humane people I know. The power-abusing leadership is what needs to be held accountable, but I see how it’s pretty hard to question someone who claims his own infallibility as a tenet of the religion.

It is inhuman to hoard a ridiculous sum of money while people are starving to death, unable to meet their most basic needs. Those among us who are considered the closest to divine are doing just that, and mentioning the papal Prada doesn’t do the issue justice.

The timing of the pope’s visit to the United States should wake us up to the wrongness of the distribution of wealth and power. As the leader of a religion that espouses social justice, the Pope should be working to curb poverty and hunger instead of touring one of the world’s richest countries to have his hand kissed by the richest and most empowered people in it.