27/11/2013 10:44 GMT | Updated 27/01/2014 05:59 GMT

The Pope on Capitalism: The Same Goes for Catholicism

There's a scene in the 1991 filmThe Silence of the Lambs where Agent Starling - played so beautifully by Jodie Foster - is interviewing Hannibal Lecter. In his trademark creepy way, Lecter is telling Starling all that he sees of her - things that are true, but uncomfortably so. She turns to him and says:

You see a lot don't you Doctor? Why don't you turn that high-powered perception at yourself and tell us what you see, or maybe you're afraid to?

As Pope Francis launched into his powerful critique of capitalism, it was this quote that came to mind. He is no Lecter - that's far from the point - but one wonders if he is afraid of turning his powerfully perceptive gaze back onto his own church and his own beliefs.

In some ways he has begun to do this. His 'sweeping out' of the Vatican bank and his rejection of the trappings of wealth that his predecessor delighted in are highly refreshing. A church that is 'poor and bruised and dirty' is one that will have far more integrity speaking out on matters of ethics and justice. All of this is welcomed.

However, as I've explored in a short book After Magic - Moves Beyond Supernature from Batman to Shakespeare, there is a deeper level at which Pope Francis has perhaps shied away from focusing his high-powered perception, even as he has burned away at capitalism.

Focusing on how capitalism creates inequality and exclusion, in one of the most powerful passages of his recent missive he writes:

Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

His point here is that capitalism places, as philosophers would put it, a 'large demand' on us as human beings. We act in ways that are not just or loving, not because we are deliberately evil or lazy, but because the weight of service we owe to the economic system we are tied up in almost forces us to. We work long hours and spend minimal time with our families, we buy from web-sites that we know are destroying local bookstores, we get cheap clothing from suppliers we know are not treating workers as we would like our own children to be treated - and we do all of this not because we are bad people, but because the demand of the capitalist system is so large that we can hardly avoid it.

While Francis' analysis is correct, the problem is that capitalism is not the only system that acts in this way: religions - Catholicism included - also create problematic demands on us. Indeed, one could argue that the idea of God could be seen as an infinite demand: if God has said, for example, that being gay is sinful or having women leaders is wrong, who are we to even begin to argue?

Dostoyevsky famously pronounced that 'if God does not exist, everything becomes permissible.' Modern thinkers have turned this on its head and noted that 'with God everything is justifiable': much as a believer might want to accept gay marriage, they can't so long as their God tells them it's wrong. Thus, in this way, the infinite demand of 'God' can, in the same way as the large demand of capitalism that Francis bemoans, lead people into behaviour that excludes, condemns and creates inequality and injustice. We have unfortunately not had to look very far to see evidence of this in recent times.

This is not to condemn the Pope for what he has said - he is a refreshing voice, and his moves to modernise and liberalise a church that became more locked up under Pope Benedict should be welcomed. But we should also encourage him to turn his eye deeper and see how religion itself creates problems by the demands it makes - just as Stalinism, communism and any other 'big system' is bound to do.

What is the solution then? While we critique capitalism we need to be humble enough to admit that no 'big solution' is going to be perfect. Neither a Catholic, Islamic or Hindu theocracy would fare better. Instead, we need to see that acting humanely always requires not the blind application of our deeply held beliefs, but our sacrifice of them. In other words, if we care for justice and equality we need to care for these things more than we do our own dogmas - whether we are bankers or priests.

So many of the great stories in literature and film hint at this. Prospero gave up his magic at the end of The Tempest, and Bruce Wayne had to give up on Batman in order to save Gotham. It is when protagonists refuse to do so that tragedies occur: Macbeth's persistent grasping of the crown, or, we could say, Walter White's blind pursuit of wealth.

All credit to Pop Francis for what he has said. Now let's all have the courage to turn his insights onto ourselves, and the beliefs, values and politics we each hold that we know can diminish our humanity.