The Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr.’s perspective: Pope Francis has ascended and rapidly bypassed his German predecessor, now ranking the fourth most powerful person in the world, according to one recent study.
Crowds continue to grow at his audiences in Rome. In the first eight months of his Pontificate alone, he has already drawn more people to his audiences and feast day Angelus addresses than Benedict did in eight years.
The political left cheers Francis, while claiming that he is a progressive man of the people ready to break with years of Vatican traditions, including such touchy subjects as sexual morality.
The political right has also applauded the Pope, but has begun to complain, usually in hushed tones, which are constantly growing more public.
Pope Francis is revolutionary.
No one can sit easy while listening to such shepherds of the spirit who prophetically challenge the self-righteous pharisee in us all. Like Jesus, the Pope speaks of a Kingdom that is much bigger than impending inflation rates, growing national debt, and strife between political parties.
Loved for his short, pithy statements that show sensitive compassion and deep understanding of timeless truths, Francis is followed by more than 10 million Twitter and holds records for the most re-tweets.
But his longer statements, two extensive interviews with journalists and his exhortation on the new evangelization, have provoked contrasting interpretations and confusion, stoked of course by talk radio, like Rush Limbaugh‘s initial discussion of “The Joy of the Gospel.”
In fact, it should be no surprise that the Pope debate has intensified in reaction to the publication of “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis’ first programmatic personal statement on the Church and evangelization of the world. From the left, Hans Küng, the dissident Catholic theologian and priest, celebrates what he calls Francis’ intensifying “critique of capitalism”.
From the right, Kishore Jayabalan and Sam Gregg, Catholic proponents of free market economics at the ecumenical Acton Institute, complain about Francis’ “tirades against the market economy” and “facile and plainly false accusations” against global capitalism.
Should proponents of a free market fear Francis, the first Pope to have worked under a Marxist woman, when, prior to entering priestly formation, Jorge Mario Bergoglio worked in a chemical lab in Buenos Aires?
Francis has expressed his deep respect and fondness for his former boss — even how much he learned from her.
But the key to understanding Francis is now in black and white. The apparent ambiguities should be easily resolved, unless the reader is so rushed that he takes a few lines out of context. Francis is well aware of the temptation to read Church teaching in the facile framework of economics and politics, the dominant themes of the twenty-four hour news cycle.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” while introducing the section that deals most extensively with the poor and economic structures, Francis clarifies that his task is one of evangelical discernment for the missionary disciple not one of “detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality.”
So, look to “The Joy of the Gospel” to learn how to evangelize, not for economic theory.
Moreover, Pope Francis wants to reassure his reader that he writes in continuity with the Popes who preceded him, John Paul II, with his Centesimus Annus and its defense of the human freedom expressed in a regulated market economy, and Benedict XVI, with his Charity in Truth, the most recent full account of the Church’s social doctrine.
Francis builds upon John Paul II’s defense of economic liberty and Benedict XVI’s development of the doctrine that the freedom to seek profit within a market economy must be embedded within the context of love and truth: love for one’s neighbor and the truth regarding development in accord with authentic human dignity.
Francis succinctly recapitulates his papal predecessors: “I take for granted the different analyses which other documents of the universal magisterium have offered.” Regarding his own political theory and its application to papal governance of the universal Church, he states “I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization'”.
Francis then proceeds to focus on the core of the new evangelization: conversion of the human heart and the personal encounter with Jesus Christ, especially in the poor. Francis’s compassion for the poor is revolutionary, not utilitarian.
His compassion is radical but not infected by communism. Francis defends private property while clarifying that the rich have a responsibility to care for the poor. Francis follows Jesus’s proclamation of salvation in heaven, not in an earthly utopia achieved through the destruction of capitalism and forced redistribution.
In fact, despite the leftist applause lines and the conservative critics’ claims that the Pope needs to learn more about economics before he criticizes capitalism, those who actually read “The Joy of the Gospel” will discover that Francis nowhere uses the word “capital” or “capitalism”.
Like all of his predecessors, he criticizes consumerism and idolatry, especially the idolatry of money, finance, and the market for its own sake. “In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.”
Indeed, when man serves money he succumbs to the slavery of idolatry. Money must serve man, because the children of God, all men and all women, are to be loved for their own sake.
To address the scandalous inequalities like those he saw up close in the slums of Buenos Aires, Francis challenges the wealthy to compassion. As an Argentine archbishop, Bergoglio once railed against corruption, especially the rackets of drug and human trafficking and abusive government power.
Now as Pope he prays for politicians capable of promoting the common good, rather than usurping it. To address inequality and marginalization, Francis doesn’t propose socialist redistribution, but mercy, compassion, and individual responsibility.
To define himself, Francis simply said: “I’m a sinner.” He publicly states that the papacy itself is in need of conversion.
The first Pope from the Americas is not from the left or from the right. He is a revolutionary, and his aim is reform of the most radical kind.
The Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr. is Associate Professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
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By The Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr.