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.