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from issue no. 09 - 2009

20 YEARS LATER. From the collapse of the Wall to the global crisis

Successor of the successor of Peter

by Gianni Valente

Marx during a priestly ordination in the Freising Cathedral in June 2009 [© Katharina Ebel/KNA-Bild]

Marx during a priestly ordination in the Freising Cathedral in June 2009 [© Katharina Ebel/KNA-Bild]

“You have been waiting for Marx for forty years. Now he’s here, and he’s a Catholic priest”. So the young Reinhard liked to start his speeches when he happened to cross the Iron Curtain on his trips in the Länder of the former GDR before the Wall collapsed. The current archbishop of Munich and Freising – 56 years old, a sunny and outgoing native of Westphalia – has always played with the name that links him to the maître à penser of communism. After his doctorate in theology at Münster, after years as a priest and then as auxiliary bishop of his native diocese of Paderborn, his appointment to the episcopal see of Trier – the birthplace of the bearded 19th century philosopher – seemed a joke of providence to everybody. And an ecclesial seal on the media skills of the neosozial monsignor gained in the field through his innate propensity for dealing with social issues and the problems of the world of work. In 2008 he published a summa of his socio-economic analysis of globalization, titled, would you believe it, Das kapital. A few months earlier, on 30 November 2007, he had already been promoted to the “cardinal” see of Bavaria, which from 1977 to 1981 was entrusted by Pope Paul VI to Joseph Ratzinger.
“I am the successor of the successor of Peter”, Reinhard Marx jokes. But his “Christian critique of market reason”(as the subtitle of the Italian version of his Das Kapital puts it) is pretty serious.
According to the bishop, over the last two decades free market globalization and the usurocracy of speculators have dealt lethal blows to that market social economy which, with its checks and safeguards – a guaranteed minimum wage through collective agreements, substantial and widespread welfare, safety nets for the unemployed and disadvantaged groups – seemed to have disproved the Marxian prophecies of the inevitable U-turning of the capitalist model of economic development. So, after the historical demise of communism, the very processes of concentration of immense wealth, the widespread sense of alienation produced by general job insecurity, the emergence of new financial oligarchies and the gradual erosion of the middle classes have offered the philosopher of Trier the opportunity for a posthumous paradoxical revenge. “We all stand on the shoulders of Marx. In his analysis of the 19th century there are incontrovertible points”, the bishop acknowledged in an interview with Der Spiegel, just over a year ago.
In his book, Reinhard Marx describes with pastoral passion and unmoralizing concreteness the destabilizing effects produced by “turbo-capitalist” acceleration on the real experiences of a large part of the global population: the wane of the protection gained in trade union struggles, the erosion of the real value of wages, the gradual disappearance of the retail trade, the surreal enlargement of the gap separating a super-rich elite (“If in the late ’seventies, a US executive earned an average twenty-five times the wage of a worker, barely thirty years later it has risen to five hundred times”) and masses of former members of the middle class who have inexorably become “working poor”, people who “although they have a steady job, are living below the poverty line”. The root of these processes is precisely describable in Marxian terms. “In the context of the old conflict between labor and capital”, the archbishop of Munich and Freising declares, citing the sociologist Manuel Castells, “the increase in the speed of the exchange of information, goods and often services has shifted the balance in favor of capital... Capital is in essence global, work is usually local. In this way the possibilities for investors, speculators and the conjurors of finance increase, while those who can count only on the work of their hands are worsted”.
Faced with this state of affairs, some people have already reserved for the Church the role of sparring partner, guarantor of the “compassionate” nature of neo-capitalism: “Despite all the criticism turned on the Church”, Bishop Reinhard writes, an ironic take on the ideological artificiality of the operation, “‘moral rearmament’ is still expected of her, in the absence of other institutions. As if one could turn out morality as one turns out loaves. Or as if morality was the essence of Christianity, as if Jesus had been mainly concerned to cement our society together with morality. I just can’t find confirmation, browsing through our gospel, that that was his primary concern”.

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