Pope Francis provokes in Evangelii Gaudium

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He’s done it again. Comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

The Pope intended his first Apostolic Exhortation to be clarifying. Reactions to it have been revealing. At least people are paying attention, which they’ve been doing since he was elected. But they’re not paying as much attention to the full content of his messages, much less its context. And both are important.

Francis has a way of jabbing everyone, dropping zingers in his daily homilies and the many addresses he’s given over the past nine months. So it’s interesting to see who is uncomfortable with which particular parts of his messages. His exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, is loaded with zingers. Loaded. Every paragraph calls for its own blog post. At least that. It will take time to unpack.

But the media jumped on it for one point, and they even got that one wrong in their zeal to spin a papal admonition on economics (where was all this concern for the poor over the years of international market meltdowns and monetizing debt schemes?).

This Guardian piece serves as an example of many others like it, because they all said basically the same thing.

Pope Francis has attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny”, urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality in the first major work he has authored alone as pontiff.

The 84-page document, known as an apostolic exhortation, amounted to an official platform for his papacy, building on views he has aired in sermons and remarks since he became the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years in March.

In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticising the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money” and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare”.

He also called on rich people to share their wealth. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis wrote in the document issued on Tuesday.

What to say? Where to begin?

As the Guardian acknowledges (in passing), Francis has been saying these things in his “sermons and remarks” since he became pope. Those of us who follow his lively, engaging, colorful and compelling homilies, addresses and off-the-cuff remarks regularly have seen the themes repeated time and again, right down to the exact phrases, nailing ‘the throwaway culture’ for its ‘idolatry’ and ‘conspiracies of materialism’ and the ‘globalization of indifference’. Where were the headlines on those messages?

And notice that the reference to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” that “sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life” is just the preface for the larger message of ‘an economy of exclusion and inequality, an economy that kills.’ How many hours and pages of media could be spent on the literal value of human life and the commandment not to kill, without using it as a setup for an economic message? Talk about a ‘throwaway’ culture and…to borrow from Pope Benedict…’the culture of relativism.’

Which gets to the point that there’s utter continuity from the last pope to this, continuity in fact from the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI through John Paul II through Benedict XVI to Francis. Nothing has changed but the style and tone and personal character of the man who sits in the chair of Peter and walks in his shoes, though this pope is carrying out shoe leather Catholicism in his old, worn black ones instead of a new pair from Italian shoemakers made for the honor of the new office.

Francis doesn’t have time or inclination for that. He senses and expresses the urgency of the moment in this exhortation. On my radio program Monday I had the opportunity to discuss it with Fr. Robert Barron, who knows the message and messenger better than most Catholics and as well as any clergy. He said “this is about urgency,” just as a family with a house on fire has to put everything else aside to make putting out the fire their first priority, or a nation has to come together and move beyond petty political differences to stand unified against attacks or invasion. That is what the pope’s exhortation is about, said Barron.

The  ‘Joy of the Gospel’ has always, since the time of the Apostles to this day, been about the truth of humanity, of human rights, equality and justice he said. “What do we lead with? Not doctrine, not moral teaching, that’s all part of the larger message. But we lead with what we stand for, human dignity, life, love.”

The degree to which Francis startles is the degree to which these truths have been watered down or muted or lost. How that happened is part of the depth and breadth of this Apostolic Exhortation. What to do about it is its urgency, to encounter a world troubled and hurting and lost on the peripheries.

Which gets back to the fact that Francis is startling at all, when he’s only reiterating the message of the Gospel and the social teaching that follows. The New York Post editors get it, as they show in this editorial.

Context is important. At the heart of the pope’s concern is that in too many places today, the dignity of the human being is under siege. He scores the “feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures” for blunting our consciences. And he worries that money has become a new god.

Like the pope, we see many inequities around the world robbing people of their dignity and preventing them from sharing in the fruits of global prosperity. It is also true that in some places this includes dehumanizing practices that reduce men and women to cogs. We would only point out that in the parts of the earth where people are suffering most from these trends, it is not so much the free market as a rigged market that is to blame.

Many headlines sum up the pope’s letter as a critique of “unfettered” capitalism, and it’s certainly true that Pope Francis believes our financial world needs re-ordering. In reality, of course, unfettered capitalism doesn’t exist. But the places where it comes closest — say, Hong Kong — provide much more real opportunity and dignity for the poor than places where markets are greatly limited.

In truth, the pope’s real enemy is crony capitalism, which he has had long experience with because it dominates his native Latin America. This is a capitalism that insulates the rich and powerful from competition at home and abroad. Under crony capitalism, the poor pay more because they are denied access to better-priced goods and services from abroad; and they have fewer opportunities to use their talents and enterprise to better their conditions. And it is highly corrupting.

We fully share the pope’s concern about an “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

It’s one that is now growing in the U.S., surprising as that may be to many people. So now that the consciousness of big media has been roused by this pope’s call to urgent action, hopefully they’ll stay on message and follow where it leads.

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