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Is greed really good or will money be the end of us?

By Nina Dos Santos, CNN
December 24, 2013 -- Updated 0937 GMT (1737 HKT)
Pope Francis greets a child after his visit at the Bambino Gesu children's hospital on December 21, 2013 in Rome.
Pope Francis greets a child after his visit at the Bambino Gesu children's hospital on December 21, 2013 in Rome.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Even during the holiday season, the specter of materialism remains, writes CNN's Nina Dos Santos
  • Pope Francis argued today's "idolization of money was devastating for society, she says
  • Dos Santos: Boris Johnson, however, told Londoners to embrace the worship of wealth
  • Both messages are evidence of today's polarized views on fortune and fate, she writes

(CNN) -- This holiday season, families will gather by the fire -- or most likely by the television set -- to spend some quality time together, recording memories more valuable than any money could buy.

Even during such precious moments though, the specter of materialism remains an ever present force.

For as we all know, Christmas wouldn't be nearly as much fun without Santa paying us a fruitful visit.

And come January, tempers fray when those eagerly awaited presents start to lose their shine and the bills need settling.

That paradox was perhaps unwittingly highlighted by two of the world's most influential characters this year: one was the Pope; the other the Mayor of London.

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And just as the gap between rich and poor continues to yawn alarmingly wide, so too it seems does the difference in their approaches to money and the inequality it creates.

Using the first peace message of his pontificate to preach against the cult of high finance, Pope Francis railed against huge salaries and bonuses.

"How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure," he asked, " but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"

Without "rejecting the absolute autonomy of the markets and financial speculation ..... no solution will be found for the world's problems," he said.

The 77 year-old pontiff's criticism of the capitalist system has been so scathing of late that he has been forced to deny he is a closet Marxist after arguing today's "idolization of money" wasn't just morally wrong, it was devastating for society.

Make no mistake. "Such an economy,' he said, 'kills."

But does it really? Or does it motivate rather than maim?

Boris Johnson, who granted isn't always mentioned in the same sentence as His Holiness, told Londoners recently to embrace the worship of wealth.

Not only was greed good, he suggested in echoes of Wall Street's famous corporate raider Gordon Gekko, but the need to "keep up with the Jones's" was a powerful social stimulant for those who managed to maintain their place on life's treadmill.

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And for those who lost their footing? In Johnson's usual semi-serious view: charity -- not God -- would provide.

"Inequality is essential for the spirit of envy," he said, "stimulating brain activity," and countering falling wages elsewhere.

While the extreme views of London's Mayor may have shocked many outside the capital's affluent postcodes, a quick survey of my Twitter followers threw up the surprising revelation that even during these days of hardship, Johnson's unique brand of trickle down economics wasn't quite as unpopular as expected.

Many called him a realist.

In fairness, Johnson's speech was a calculated power play for the UK's hardline Conservative base, who have the luxury of planning how to build upon their net worth.

By contrast, Pope Francis's words offer a thought provoking appeal for altruism to counter an increasingly selfish world.

Perhaps predictably, they come from the heart of a man who has experienced hardships first hand, as a son of poor immigrants in Argentina, who when elected to lead the Catholic Church chose the name of a saint who turned his back on a life of riches.

The two messages -- one cruel, the other caring -- if anything are evidence of today's increasingly polarized views on the importance of fortune and fate in today's post-austerity era.

That's a debate which will become more prominent in 2014 as the economy flourishes once more and electorates ask themselves what they have learned from the last boom-and-bust cycle.

Either way, if there is one thing these two statements do show it's that money -- however idolatrous it may be -- is just as important for bringing people together as much as tearing them apart.

As we probably learn every holiday season as we sit down to unwrap those parcels ...

READ: Pope Francis gives Christmas message of service to Vatican staff, priests

READ: Belief Blog: The Pope's secret strength: The freedom to be Francis

READ: Europe's public health disaster: How austerity kills

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