President Obama visits Pope Francis

That headline fires the imagination.

The visit was the long overdue, according to the protocol and history of presidents meeting with popes over the decades. Former Ambassador Francis Rooney made that point in a USA Today op-ed column last October.

The past few years have seen cordial but cooling relations between the United States and the Vatican. Since President Obama took office, he has visited the Vatican just once, and the administration has demonstrated little more than a perfunctory interest in the Holy See’s diplomatic role in the world. This is a lost opportunity at a critical time for America. U.S. foreign policy has much to gain from its relationship with the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church. No institution on earth has both the international stature and the global reach of the Holy See — the “soft power” of moral influence and authority to promote religious freedom, human liberties, and related values that Americans and our allies uphold worldwide.

Ambassador Rooney was my guest on radio to talk about all this, because he has unique insights into this relationship, and he feels strongly about the importance of maintaining strong US-Vatican relations.

His commentary deserves attention.

The United States and the Holy See remain two of the most significant institutions in world history, one a beacon of democracy and progress, the other a sanctum of faith and allegiance to timeless principles. Despite these differences between the first modern democracy and the longest surviving Western monarchy, both were founded on the idea that “human persons” possess inalienable natural rights granted by God. This had been a revolutionary concept when the Catholic Church embraced it 2,000 years ago, and was equally revolutionary when the Declaration of Independence stated it 1,800 years later.

The Church is one of the leading advocates and providers for the poor in the world, fights against the scourge of human trafficking, and advances the cause of human dignity and rights more than any other organization in the world. The Holy See also plays a significant role in pursuing diplomatic solutions to international predicaments. In 2007, for example, the Holy See helped secure the release of several British sailors who had been picked up by the Iranian navy. Its long-standing bilateral relations with Iran and the lack of such relations by the British and other western governments created an opportunity for successful intervention.

And more recently, the Holy See issued its diplomatic note concerning the civil war in Syria, calling for a “concept of citizenship” in which everyone is a citizen with equal dignity. It is urging the commissions which are working on a possible future constitution and laws to ensure that Christians and representatives of all other minorities be involved. This immediately helped place a spotlight on the plight of Christians and the ongoing exodus of all non-Muslims from most Middle East countries for the last 30 years. The power and influence of the Holy See is often underestimated. A benevolent monarchy tucked into a corner of a modern democracy, the Holy See is at once a universally recognized sovereign representing more than a billion people (one-seventh of the world’s population) — and the civil government of the smallest nation-state on earth. It has no military and only a negligible economy, but it has greater reach and influence than most nations. It’s not simply the number or variety of people that the Holy See represents that gives it relevance; it’s also the moral influence of the Church, which is still considerable despite secularization and scandals.

The Holy See advocates powerfully for morality in the lives of both Catholics and non-Catholics, and in both individuals and nations. One may disagree with some of the Church’s positions and yet still recognize the value — the real and practical value — of its insistence that “right” should precede “might” in world affairs. At its core, the Catholic Church is a powerful and unique source of non-coercive “soft power” on the world stage — it moves people to do the right thing by appealing to ideals and shared values, rather than to fear and brute force. America’s foreign policy is much more likely to succeed with the support of the Holy See.

His book The Global Vatican elaborates on that, and I was interested in his recently expressed optimism at seeing the president planning a visit with Pope Francis on his travels last week. I asked how he saw that visit, given conflicting reports on what the two leaders talked about in private, but the certainty that they agreed on some mutual goals while differing on certain principles. Ambassador Rooney responded “Well, we are, after all, a people of hope.”

What did they talk about? In advance, big media speculated the two would focus on points of agreement, on economic inequality and immigration, human trafficking and humanitarian relief. But that issue agenda was laden with problems some media ignored, especially in the areas of the administration removing the US bishops’ human trafficking relief aid, and the humanitarian relief provided by the US being tied to ‘reproductive justice.’

I’m always interested in the facts and the truth and the basics, so I wanted to cut through the spin. Fortunately, we have more of an idea of what happened between the pope and the president than we could expect from such a high level, closed door meeting. Top Vatican watcher Sandro Magister wrote this:

In his meeting with Barack Obama a few days ago, Pope Francis was not silent on what divides the American administration from the Church of that country on weighty questions like “the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection.” And he stressed this in the statement issued after the discussion.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio does not like direct conflict, in public, with the powerful of the world. He lets the local episcopates take action. But he does not conceal his own disagreement, and he is careful to maintain his distance. In the photos of his official meetings he poses with a stern expression, unlike the exaggerated smiles of his counterpart of the moment, in this case the head of the world’s greatest power.

Nor could he do otherwise, given the radically critical judgment that Pope Francis fosters within himself regarding today’s worldly powers.

It is a judgment that he has never made explicit in a complete form. But he has offered many glimpses of it. For example, with his frequent references to the devil as the great adversary of the Christian presence in the world, seeing him at work behind the curtains of the political and economic powers. Or when he lashes out – as in the homily of November 18, 2013 – against the “sole form of thought” that wants to enslave all of humanity to itself, even at the price of “human sacrifices,” complete with “laws that protect them.”

Apparently, these issues came up, diplomatically, in that meeting.

In their first face-to-face meeting, Pope Francis reiterated the Catholic Church’s concerns with President Barack Obama’s policies on abortion, conscience rights, and freedom of religion.

A source familiar with the talks told LifeSiteNews that the Vatican press release on the meeting was “remarkably forthright” in emphasizing the fact that the pope raised these issues with the president.

According to the press release, the pope launched a discussion with the American president about the proper role of church and state, raising “questions of particular relevance for the [Catholic] Church in that country.” These included “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection,” according to the Vatican.

The 52-minute-long meeting marked Obama’s first audience with Pope Francis. The divide between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church has deepened since his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, with broiling arguments over the president’s promotion of abortion-on-demand, same-sex “marriage,” and the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate.

Just to note, a 52 minute meeting with Pope Francis by a head of state is almost half an hour longer than the usual.

Then it ended with the cordial exchange of gifts.

Pope Francis presented President Obama with a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which criticizes some public figures who attempt to marginalize the pro-life message by presenting it as “ideological, obscurantist, and conservative.”

“This defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right,” Pope Francis wrote. “It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”

The president said he may look at it. “You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office,” Obama responded, “when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down.”

A source of hope.

For his part – perhaps signaling a wish for a new springtime with the church – Obama gave Francis a collection of seeds used in the White House garden. The kicker, however, was the chest they came in: custom-made and engraved with the occasion and date, the case was fashioned of wood from the US’ first cathedral, Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption, which the Jesuit founder-Bishop John Carroll and Benjamin Latrobe – the future architect of the Capitol – designed as a monument to religious freedom in the American experiment. Against the backdrop of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate which has roiled the Stateside church for going on three years, the significance is rather rich.

With religious freedom being at stake in the two HHS mandate lawsuits before the Supreme Court, one can only hope the president does follow through a read Evangelii Gaudium in the Oval Office or anywhere, and take to hear the message Pope Francis so incisively delivers in that document. The president admires the pope. Maybe he’ll consider his teaching.

But as Ambassador Rooney repeated by the end of an hour’s discussion of ‘The Global Vatican’ and the importance of US-Vatican relations, “we remain a people of hope.”

Pope Francis, global village pastor

He is the spiritual father the world is looking for, whether they realize it or not.

That’s how papal biographer and Vatican analyst George Weigel put it when we spoke the other day to mark the first anniversary of Jorge Bergoglio’s papacy.

The analysis of his first year, and what it’s the first year of, continues.

A year into the papacy of Pope Francis, however, the world and the Church continue to wonder just what this pontificate will bring — and no small part of that puzzlement, it seems to me, has to do with the “narrativizing of the pope” that has been underway in much of the world media for the better part of a year. Perhaps now, on this first anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter, it’s time to set aside the narratives and look at what the pope has actually said and done, in order to get a better sense of where he may be leading more than 1.2 billion Catholics and those outside the Catholic Church who look to Francis for leadership and inspiration.

This is incisive.

His most significant papal document to date, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, showed him to be a man completely committed to reenergizing the Church as a missionary enterprise. This evangelical vision of the Catholic future, which was the dominant motif of the last half of the pontificate of John Paul II, is also in continuity with a regularly repeated injunction of Benedict XVI: The days of culturally transmitted Catholicism, or what some might call Catholicism by osmosis, are over and done with.

Though the continuity in teaching and tradition remains unbroken and unchanged, there’s a new tone and style and character in the chief shepherd’s office.

For all his high media profile throughout the world, Pope Francis is actually committed to a certain downsizing of the papacy. His recent complaint about the image of the pope as “Superman,” in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is not simply a matter of Bergoglio’s objecting to journalists’ turning him into something he knows he isn’t; it reflects his sense that, when the pope is the sole center of attention in matters Catholic, all others are getting a pass on their evangelical responsibilities. Much attention has been paid, over the past year, to what are essentially symbolic aspects of this papal downsizing…

Check them out, he names several.

At the same time, this papal downsizer has shown himself to be a deadly serious reformer of the Roman Curia: a task, he told the Corriere, that was the primary concern of the conclave that elected him. His creation of a new secretariat for the economy as one of the premier offices of the Curia, and his naming of the no-nonsense Australian cardinal George Pell to head it, is little less than an earthquake in the structure of the Holy See. Finance, personnel policy, and administrative oversight have been taken away from what Francis evidently regards as a sclerotic Italian bureaucracy. And those responsibilities have been given to what is expected to be a lean (and, when necessary, mean) operation, which in its crucial first years will be headed by one of the toughest and shrewdest of churchmen, who (not unlike Francis) combines a priest’s heart with a keen nose for corruption.

Francis’s challenge to his newly named cardinals — that they think of themselves as servants, not courtiers — is another expression of his determination to challenge everyone in the Church to greater evangelical fervor. So was his recent charge, to the Vatican office that helps the pope select bishops, to search widely — perhaps more widely than has been the case in the past — to find for Catholicism the local leaders it needs: men of proven evangelical determination, who can call both priests and people to live their missionary vocation more actively, often in difficult cultural circumstances.

Anyone who followed the naming of new cardinals noticed immediately that the pope went, literally, to the ‘existential peripheries’ to which he refers often.

Which brings us to something else that ought to have been learned about Pope Francis over the past year: this is a man with a deep, compassionate, yet searching sense of the profound wounds that postmodern culture inflicts on individuals and societies. Many regarded it as something of a throwaway line when, in one of his daily Mass sermons, the pope made a positive reference to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World, the first of the 20th-century literary dystopias. But the more closely one reads Pope Francis, especially in those daily homilies, the more one begins to get the sense that Benson’s vision, of a world in which power-madness and aggressive secularism masquerade as reason and compassion, is quite close to Bergoglio’s vision of what he has sometimes described as the idolatries of our time. The pope has spoken passionately about those who have been left behind, materially, in the world economy. But he has spoken just as passionately about the spiritual and cultural impoverishment that comes from imagining that everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable, and subject to change by means of human willfulness.

This is important, in any hope of understanding this pope and where he is leading people.

The pope knows that, amid the polymorphous perversities of postmodernity and the pain they cause, the Church attracts primarily by witness, not by argument. To those who imagine themselves beyond the reach of compassion, the Church offers the experience of the divine mercy. No one, the pope insists, is beyond the reach of God’s power to forgive. That experience of mercy, in turn, opens up its recipient to the truths the Church proposes: the truths the Church believes make for the human happiness that is being eroded by the idolatries of the age, especially the idolatry of the imperial autonomous Self. Mercy and truth are not antinomies, in the Catholic scheme of things. Mercy and truth are two entwined dimensions of God’s reach into history, and into individual lives.

Time [magazine] read the Pope’s self-query, “Who am I to judge?” as the opening wedge to that long-awaited concession by the Catholic Church that it had been wrong, all along, about the sexual revolution. That is not what the pope thinks, having gone out of his way in Corriere della Sera to praise the “genius” and “courage” of Pope Paul VI for “applying a cultural brake” in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, for standing fast against the tidal wave of Sixties permissivism that has led to so much unhappiness and sorrow, and for opposing “present and future neo-Malthusianism.” When Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?” he was responding as a pastor to the particular situation of a man experiencing same-sex attraction. And as the pope said, if that man was trying, with the grace of God, to live an honest and chaste life, he ought not be judged by his temptations, any more than anyone else in this world of endless temptation. Mercy and truth, as always, go together. For the mercy that tells us that we are not beyond the pale of forgiveness is the mercy that leads us into the truths that make for genuine human happiness.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a very old-school Jesuit, and it’s clear that, as such, he is going to be pope his way, not anyone else’s…

And as such, he is capturing the world’s attention, for reasons they may not even know or be correct in identifying. All they know is that he is reaching the human heart and mind and soul on a depth not even perceptible to the senses, except for that of the transcendent. Many people who are not Catholic, including the altogether un-churched, have called him ‘our pope’. And so he is.

Pope Francis: ‘Can you hear me now?’

Though he didn’t say exactly that, he said that in so many words.

Pope Francis has been provoking and jabbing people on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum since he was elected to fill the Chair of Peter. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI dedicated their pontificates to implementing the rich teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis comes along and says, more or less, ‘okay, let’s do this.’ He seems to have his sleeves perpetually rolled up (in a manner of speaking), and his worn shoe leather hitting the ground to reach everyone who comes across his path. In fact, he goes seeking the ones who aren’t on his path, as he did in Rio during World Youth Day week when he instructed his motorcade to stop abruptly so he could jump out and go visit a family living in a house he passed along the way. He must be driving his security detail nuts, but they’re surely getting more used to this pope by now.

After all, he even slips out at night to go into the run down parts of the city of Rome to give alms, evidently.

He has the world’s attention. That’s one thing. But are they hearing him?

I’d love to delve deeper into Evangelii Gaudium, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, and will. But preparing to leave town on an event with the mission to reach people who want to hear the joy of the Gospel (and God help me if I don’t bring it, in a joyful demeanor a la Francis), there’s no time right now to give those outstanding words and paragraphs the time they deserve right now. In due time…

Suddenly, Catholics in high places who want to get it right and are trying to stay up with this Pope are putting out thought provoking posts like this.

What’s Pope Francis up to? Reminding people of roots and past, urging us forward with a greater awareness of the Trinitarian dimensions of our lives. What’s Archbishop Gomez up to in his Immigration and the Next America? Ditto. Archbishop Chaput in just about every syllable. Something similar. You get the idea. We have a talented and wise bench of American bishops and rising cardinals. They challenge and lead. (Thinking of Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix and so many others.)

If lay Catholics take the lead in the political, really grappling with what Catholic Social Teaching should look like in policy practice in an ecumenical civil context, our pastors will have more time for the pastoral. And we’ll [have] more of a prayer of Catholics who vote and serve with Catholic teaching in mind, discerning their contribution in prayer, infused by the graces of the Sacraments and sanctified living.

In the early going, the ever instructive Jimmy Akin lists his ‘what you need to know’ points about this papal document. I particularly liked point no. 7:

7) What particularly noteworthy things does the pope have to say in the document?

There is a mountain of them.

He’s certainly right on that.

The document is 51,000 words long, which means that it is the length of a novel and takes at least 5 hours to read.

There are numerous important things that the pope says, some of which I will endeavor to unpack in future blog posts.

However, Archbishop Fisichella offers a summary of seven main themes that it covers:

The following seven points, gathered together in the five chapters of the Exhortation, constitute the fundamental pillars of Pope Francis’ vision of the new evangelization:

1. the reform of the Church in a missionary key,

2. the temptations of pastoral agents,

3. the Church understood as the totality of the People of God which evangelizes,

4. the homily and its preparation,

5. the social inclusion of the poor,

6. peace and social dialogue,

7. and the spiritual motivations for the Church’s missionary action.

The cement which binds these themes together is concentrated in the merciful love of God which goes forth to meet every person in order to manifest the heart of his revelation: The life of every person acquires meaning in the encounter with Jesus Christ and in the joy of sharing this experience of love with others.

Sound too ‘churchy’ for you? This pope doesn’t do ‘churchy’ in ways modern culture is used to, or used to ridiculing.

Media are still seeing the document as an excoriation of capitalism. Not exactly, though once again, he jabs everyone. This piece has a good lead.

Nothing worries Catholics more than the reporting of statements made by Pope Francis.

True, I’ve learned early on. He makes everyone nervous. People are working overtime ‘explaining this pope’, I’ve seen time and again.

The reaction across the political spectrum suggested that Pope Francis was breaking with the supposedly ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI on emphasis if not entirely on teaching, while others accused Francis of betraying the Cold War legacy of soon-to-be-canonized John Paul II by embracing socialism rather than the free-market economics that liberated Poland and Eastern Europe.

However, a thorough reading of Evangelii Gaudium in the context of the Catechism promulgated by John Paul II fails to substantiate these accusations or celebrations. It’s true that Francis has scalding criticisms of dysfunctional capitalism as an end in itself. One has to consider that in the context of his front-row seat for the Argentinian version of it, where crony capitalism creates a huge distortion in the distribution of goods and the winners corrupt government to perpetuate those outcomes. Argentina hardly holds a monopoly on that development, though, and where gaps of inequality and poverty in these economies grow, criticism of those outcomes don’t make one a socialist. Indeed, Francis even includes a disclaimer against “an irresponsible populism,” even while blasting economies that “attempt to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded” in the same sentence.

For those familiar with Catholic teaching on economics, Pope Francis speaks in a consistent voice with his predecessors.

So, some snips to make the points clearer:

Almost all of the coverage of the document failed to note the actual purpose of the apostolic exhortation, which was to evangelize in the real world….

The Gospel, Pope Francis insists in Evangelii Gaudium, transcends those by reminding us to be mindful of the human cost of markets, and to feel the pain of those who are impoverished rather than dismiss them as mere statistics – like “the 47 percent,” for an example. The central point for Catholics is to evangelize the Word of God through proclamation and service, and not “capitalism,” or “socialism,” or “utopianism.” Francis scolds governments for not structuring their economies better to prevent injustices, but the emphasis in Evangelii Gaudium is on individual action….

Near the end of the exhortation, Francis notes that the state has a responsibility to promote the common good through “the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.” The key concept of subsidiarity in Catholic doctrine rejects Marxism and command economies, teaching that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (paragraph 1883)…

Pope Francis uses a small part of Evangelii Gaudium to challenge Catholics not to invert the means over the ends, i.e., to fall so in love with economic philosophies as to become blinded to their pitfalls and negative outcomes. Far from demanding top-down control over economies, Francis is exhorting Catholics to act personally when they see injustices, and in that effort bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.

If that makes us uncomfortable – and clearly that part of Evangelii Gaudium will do so for Catholics inclined to support market-based economics – it serves as a reminder not to dull our senses so that we grow deaf and blind to the sufferings of the poor, just as the Gospel demands.

And it serves as a blueprint for the way forward.

“The title — ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ — says it all: We need to speak boldly about Christ and the Gospel and do it with joyful lives, engaging the world,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.

George Weigel, the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, told the Register that Pope Francis was building on the foundations of his predecessors, but he also identified something “new” from the Church’s first Latin-American pope.

“He puts the New Evangelization at the very center of the Church and orients everything else around it,” said Weigel. “This exhortation demonstrates the seamless continuity between John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis and the continuity between the John Paul-Benedict interpretation of Vatican II and Francis: It’s all about recovering the missionary vocation of everyone.”

Happy to say that I’ve had George Weigel, Archbishop Kurtz, and renowned evangelist Fr. Robert Barron on my show in the past two weeks to talk about what seems like constantly breaking news with this pope and social policy. Each and all have reinforced their enthusiasm for the way and the words Francis chooses to engage the world today. Fr. Barron referred to it as an urgency, like ‘grabbing the lapels’ urgency to make an important point, an urgency he said started with the Apostles.

Wow. It’s been a long time since we’ve felt that. Fr. Barron continues:

“Pope Francis is clear: The one thing that positions everything that the Church seeks to accomplish, from worship to catechesis to efforts to serve the needs of the poor, is the central and urgent task of evangelization.”

And what is its message? The sense of urgency is in the response.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Francis asks.

The Holy Father acknowledges that his strong words might bruise the feelings of some Catholics, but he said that was not his intention.

“My words are not those of a foe or an opponent,” Francis states. “I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains”.

He’s rattling those chains. And we’re hearing him, loud and, hopefully, clear.

Pope Francis provokes in Evangelii Gaudium

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.