How Pope Francis Can Finish What Occupy Wall Street Started

The pope’s astronomical popularity means his income-inequality message can go further than Occupy’s ever could.

Pope Francis prays in front of the statue of the Immaculate Conceptionon at Spanish Steps December 8, 2013 in Rome, Italy. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Dec. 12, 2013, 5:36 a.m.

Every­body likes the pope.

Or at least nearly every­body. Time‘s newly min­ted Per­son of the Year is viewed fa­vor­ably by 92 per­cent of Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics, ac­cord­ing to a new ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post poll. The same poll found that 69 per­cent of all Amer­ic­ans view Fran­cis fa­vor­ably. And these num­bers have been rising since Fran­cis’s elec­tion in March. A new Wall Street Journ­al poll says that the pope’s pop­ular­ity has nearly doubled since Ju­ly. Fran­cis is already at least as pop­u­lar as Pope John Paul II was at his peak.

So when Pope Fran­cis is­sued his World Day of Peace mes­sage on Thursday at­tack­ing the “widen­ing gap between those who have more and those who must be con­tent with the crumbs,” Amer­ic­ans listened. This is the same pope who in Septem­ber cri­ti­cized the glob­al eco­nom­ic sys­tem for wor­ship­ping “a god called money” and said that “we want a just sys­tem that helps every­one.” It’s the same pope who de­nounced “trickle-down” eco­nom­ics and warned that the “id­ol­atry of money” would lead to a “new tyranny.”

While the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment that began in 2011 de­serves cred­it for bring­ing in­come in­equal­ity to the polit­ic­al front-and-cen­ter, it’s Pope Fran­cis who can ac­tu­ally keep it there.

A big part of the reas­on for that is his pop­ular­ity. Oc­cupy Wall Street nev­er had any­thing like the pope’s ap­prov­al num­bers. A month after the move­ment began in fall 2011, more Amer­ic­ans ap­proved of Oc­cupy than dis­ap­proved by a slim mar­gin, 39 per­cent to 35 per­cent.

But a vastly lar­ger num­ber of Amer­ic­ans sup­por­ted the ideas be­hind the Oc­cupy move­ment. A Decem­ber 2011 Pew Re­search poll found that while Oc­cupy at that point had just a 44 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing, 77 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieved that “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and cor­por­a­tions,” and 61 per­cent be­lieved that the U.S. eco­nom­ic sys­tem was un­fair and favored the wealthy.

The ideas about in­equal­ity ex­pressed by Oc­cupy in 2011 and by Fran­cis today are not un­com­mon among Amer­ic­ans. But the pope is an in­fin­itely more power­ful con­duit to carry and cham­pi­on them. And he can be that cham­pi­on without sud­denly ditch­ing the papacy and ac­cept­ing a policy gig at the White House. The pope, with his in­fal­lib­il­ity and his U.S. base of over 75 mil­lion Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics, is already stand­ing atop one of his­tory’s largest soap­boxes.

It makes sense that, in a re­cent speech on eco­nom­ic fair­ness, Pres­id­ent Obama quoted Fran­cis, ask­ing “How can it be that it is not a news item when an eld­erly home­less per­son dies of ex­pos­ure, but it is news when the stock mar­ket loses two points?” It’s much more dif­fi­cult to ima­gine the pres­id­ent quot­ing Oc­cupy in that ma­jor speech on eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity — in no small part be­cause it’d be kind of weird for Obama to just start wag­gling his fin­gers.

But as Obama tries to base the re­mainder of his pres­id­ency on mo­bil­ity and in­equal­ity, he has few al­lies more power­ful than the Vat­ic­an.

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