01/21/2014 09:52 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Religious Idealism vs. Worldly Realities

Quite a bit of speculation is appearing in the media about the possible impact of recent statements by the new pope, both off-the-cuff as well as the more carefully crafted, about the world's economy and especially about the deplorable, even atrocious degree of economic inequality that separates the rich from the poor in so many parts of the world. One could argue that what he is saying is nothing new, that in fact what he is saying not only is only a continuation of what the Church has been saying over and over again, in quite specific detail, for the past hundred years or so. But it has its roots in the Gospel and before that, nearly two millennia of biblical tradition. So if the pope is making headlines, it is probably because his language is more direct and unmistakable than past papal pronouncements.

When you come down to it, that message is really quite simple. It is that God created the earth and its resources for the benefit of all and that when certain people succeed amassing those resources for their own exclusive use, they are, in effect, robbing the rest of humanity. Whether such theft is by invading armies, by political chicanery, or ruthless business practices makes little difference, as the end is the same -- a privileged few living in the lap of luxury compared the masses of people who barely get by, while far too many others are left to live in complete hopelessness and misery.

Of course, there are those who are quick to point out that such a black and white picture is far too simplistic and that the kind of egalitarian society that the Church has held up as an ideal is ... well, simply idealistic, in fact, naively so. And perhaps it is. But is it not the function of religion to hold up ideals to be achieved, even if we never ever quite perfectly achieve them? When Jesus said "Blessed are the poor (or poor of heart)" he was not praising poverty as such. Quite the contrary: he was warning us that the kingdom of God (or of heaven on earth) would never be realized, much less possessed, by the avaricious or the greedy.

Another way of looking at this whole issue might be in terms of the old concept of "original sin" and its effect on the human character. While I personally don't hold much to any literal belief in Adam and Eve's eating a piece of forbidden fruit as being the cause of all our problems, I do see the story as a good parable of the human condition. This is because, having evolved from the apes, we carry within our genes quite a bit of evolutionary baggage -- much of it not very helpful in achieving civilized behavior. But if we are to be truly realistic about the human condition, one way or another we have to face up to its consequences of its existence. If the political "left" makes a major mistake, it is in denying "original sin" and assuming that human nature is immaculately conceived and thus flawless.

But if the political "right" makes a mistake, it is in sanctifying original sin and somehow assuming that this fatal flaw will eventually turn out to be a virtue in disguise -- hence yet another kind of naïve idealism, one singled out by Pope Francis, known as "trickle down" economic theory.

Nevertheless I think it might be said that it is such idealism, whether it be of the right or the left, that is at the root of all human progress and that if we ever succumb to the kind of survival-of-the-fittest realism that characterizes humanity's evolutionary past, we will have, in the end, find ourselves having "devolved" back to the pre-human level of our primate ancestors. So when you get down to it, both right and left really do claim to hold the same ideal, a prosperous and relatively decent life for every human being on the planet. The only real argument seems to be on how to actually achieve it.