At this very moment, 3 million people are gathered with Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro. For some perspective on that, see Wikipedia’s list of the largest peaceful gatherings of human beings in one place in all of history, here.
Interesting comments on the distinctiveness of Pope Francis:
[For those alienated from the church,] John Paul was difficult to understand because he was a philosopher. Benedict just didn’t connect with them, and he had a lot of bad press, they would call him the Rottweiler, he didn’t capture a lot of people’s imagination. But this guy does.
Must be some authority-shirking, liturgy-trashing, social justice dissident speaking there, just trying to mold Francis in their own image, at the expense of previous popes whom they hated anyway, right?
Nope, that’d be Fr. Mitch Pacwa, EWTN star and nobody’s liberal.
As an admirer of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, I have been sympathetic to the complaints of some “conservatives” about the potshots that some have taken at these two remarkable men in order to explain the distinctiveness of Francis (you would think by some accounts that these two were Borgia popes or that Francis was the first pope to kiss a baby). So I’m intrigued at Pacwa’s willingness to, well, take a few potshots.
Don’t get me wrong — I have no doubt the man loves JP2 and B16. (I do, too.) My point is, Francis is different, distinctive, and more effective as a pastor and a Christian witness in some important ways. And to say so, perhaps by comparisons, need not be considered, in itself, disrespectful.
By the way, I enjoyed Pacwa’s metaphor quoted in the same article: “All the popes are against consumerism, but this guy brings the hay down to where the goats can get it.”
Interesting new comments here, published today, from Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the cause for the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is important to note, for context, that in beatification/canonization causes, the CDF often reviews the writings and public comments of candidates to ensure they are free of doctrinal error. (This is my translation from the article, which is in Spanish.)
The process toward the doctrinal “nihil obstat” [that is, approval] in the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith] has proceeded normally and under Benedict XVI even saw a decisive acceleration. We cannot forget that in 2007, during his trip to Brazil, Pope Ratzinger said clearly that he considered Romero worthy of beatification. Now, with Pope Francis, the process is proceeding with great speed in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
— Pope Francis to 5.000 young Argentineans at Rio de Janiero Cathedral, 7/25/13 (source)
The First Things “On the Square” blog offered a post the other day from author William Doino, Jr., called “Five Myths About Pope Francis.” Doino sees some dastardly thinking in the air about our Pope, and he wishes to debunk it all. (Thanks to Michael Sean Winters for drawing my attention it, but I can’t help but expand upon his brief comments.)
“Myth” #1 that Doino seeks to dismiss is that “Francis is the anti-Benedict.” The first thing to say is that there is absolutely no one who is suggesting that Francis is “the anti-Benedict,” as though the two are as different as night and day or somehow dramatically at odds in terms of doctrine or theology. What Doino offers here is a straw man. Everyone who has paid any attention knows that Francis seems to like Benedict, respect Benedict, and that he embraces and seeks to proclaim the same Catholic doctrine embraced and proclaimed by Benedict.
But it should be obvious to all that this is not an all-or-nothing matter. We do not have to choose between Francis being either the anti-Benedict or a Benedict replica. And the fact is, in some significant and interesting ways, Francis is different than Benedict. This is okay and to be expected. Benedict was different than John Paul II in some significant and interesting ways, too. What bugs the First Things folks is that some of the differences (his application of the Church’s social teachings, for example, and maybe his liturgical style) suggest that ideas they would want us to think are unacceptable are in fact quite legitimate among Catholics.
“Myth” #2 that Doino opposes is that “Francis is Not a Cultural Warrior.” Doino rejects the idea that the Pope “avoids confrontation and strident denunciations, and wants no part of any culture war,” apparently because to do so would be bad for a Pope. Doino is clearly bothered by Sandro Magister’s observation that “after 120 days of pontificate Pope Francis has not yet spoken the words abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage,” for he says it’s hard to imagine a more misleading statement.
Magister’s comment is certainly not insignificant, but there is probably absolutely no one who would take from it that it means Francis is in any way in favor of these practices or lacks the will to oppose them. What is does say a lot about, in my opinion, is Francis’s pastoral priorities.
Francis is indeed, in some ways, a culture warrior. The problem for the First Things crowd is the aspects of the culture with which he has chosen, so far, to do battle. And yet raise his voice he does, prophetically, and he does it by drawing upon on the same Catholic moral tradition from which Benedict and John Paul II drew. He has done this from the very first days of his pontificate, when he pointed out clearly what he sees to be “one of the most dangerous threats of our times” — but failed to mention the threats that Doino and others at First Things would prefer did. “Above all,” he said, “we must keep alive in our world the thirst for the absolute, and must not allow the vision of the human person with a single dimension to prevail, according to which man is reduced to what he produces and to what he consumes: this is one [of the] most dangerous threats of our times.”
Pope Francis played the role of “culture warrior” quite dramatically more recently at Lampedusa, when he donned purple vestments for Mass on a weekday of Ordinary Time, used the prayers from the Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins, and called for our repentance for the way we have treated immigrants. The pope preached boldly:
“Where is your brother?” the voice of his blood cries even to me, God says. This is not a question addressed to others: it is a question addressed to me, to you, to each one of us. These our brothers and sisters seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace, they seek a better place for themselves and for their families – but they found death. How many times to those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity! And their voices rise up even to God!…
The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference.
Francis also stood as culture warrior in his May address to new diplomats to the Vatican in which he criticized the world’s economic system. He said,
The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal. The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption…. I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.
And by the way, the world press had no doubts on that occasion about whether Francis might be considered a culture warrior. As I pointed out at the time, depending on where you got your news, you could read that Pope Francis slammed, attacked, denounced, ripped, hit out at, blasted, railed against, warned against, criticized, or condemned the “cult of money” that pervades much of the world economy.
“Myth” #3 that Doino wishes to dispell is “Francis is a ‘Social Justice’ Pope.” Because, you know, heaven forbid we think that!!
As evidence that Francis is not a “social justice pope,” Doino points out that he is “not exclusively concerned about poverty” and because he “believes that individual conversion must precede societal improvement.” Of course, if to be a “social justice pope” means that he can be concerned only and exclusively about poverty and that he thinks individual conversion has no place in societal improvement, there never has been and never will be such a creature. But if a “social justice pope” is a pope who makes social justice a pastoral priority, then he is clearly that. So, in very real ways, was John XXIII. And Paul VI. And John Paul II. And Benedict XVI.
Francis has added some new twists to his pastoral ministry in pursuit of social justice, and it’s these that make the neo-conservatives at First Things uncomfortable (as Archbishop Chaput has pointed out bluntly this week).
Doino’s “Myth” #4 is that “Francis Will Be More Charitable Toward Dissenters.” This is an odd one to include here, because to my mind, the only thing anyone can say one way or another right now about how Francis will relate to prominent theologians who dissent in significant ways from Church teaching is that it remains to be seen. What we can say is that there is more than one way for Church authorities to address doctrinal dissent. We can also say that it is not altogether clear that what has been treated as dissent over the past several decades has, in every case, been that. Francis has a different personality and, as I said, different pastoral priorities. Might he take a different approach? Yes, he might. We don’t know.
Finally, Doino’s “Myth” #5 is “Francis Loves the World.” Horrors! How did this despicable accusation get out, and how can we stop it?!? Have no fear, Doino is quick to step in decisively: “This is the greatest misconception of all.”
After all, we can’t have anyone thinking that Francis has the same love for the world that, like, God does.
Granted, Doino allows that Francis loves people (whew!) and also loves creation. But apparently we can’t say that he loves the world.
In conclusion, get it right: Francis is the same as Benedict, is a neo-conservative culture warrior, is no social justice pope, is going to nail dissenters, and hates the world. Or something like that.
In that first audience with journalists, which I mentioned in the Part 1, Francis called for “a Church which is poor and for the poor.” This may be as succinct and effective a description of church teaching on the preferential option of the poor as you will find.
The idea of an option for the poor insists that people living in poverty need and deserve the special concern of the Church and society and that where there are social or political structures, practices, or attitudes that work against people living in poverty, the Church must take the side of the poor. A primary question in approaching all social, ecclesial, and personal decisions should be, “How will it affect the poor?”
The Christian option for the poor is, more than anything else, an imitation of the attitude and the behavior of God. Throughout salvation history, God reveals God’s own preferential option for the poor, in a way that allowed Pope John Paul II to feel comfortable calling people living in poverty “God’s favorites.”
From the very beginnings of the story of the Israelite people, God chooses to work through the poor, the weak, and the marginalized, and God works in direct opposition to the indignities and the oppression that they face at the hands of the rich and powerful of the world and on behalf of their liberation. In the Old Testament, it is impossible to separate the theme of poverty from the theme of liberation from injustice and oppression.
With the coming of Christ, salvation history takes a dramatic new turn, but God’s option for the poor remains an unbroken theme of the story. Christ, the incarnate God, is truly God’s option for the poor made flesh. We see this expressed, for example, in the song of Mary, who proclaims after her initial encounter with the angel who announced the coming of the Christ that the Lord has “dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart./ He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones / but lifted up the lowly. / The hungry he has filled with good things; / the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1: 51-53). We see it in Jesus’s homily in the synagogue of Nazareth, when he says that he was sent to proclaim freedom to captives and let the oppressed go free (Luke 4: 18). We see it in his own Resurrection, a divine vindication in which he can be seen to stand in the place of all of the crucified people of the history.
An option for the poor, in other words, is absolutely christocentric. This is expressed well by the 2007 Aparecida document of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, a document upon which then-Cardinal Bergoglio had a strong influence: “Everything having to do with Christ has to do with the poor, and everything connected to the poor cries out to Jesus Christ: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Mt 25:40)…. For in Christ the great became small, the strong became weak, the rich became poor” (n. 393).
Throughout the history of Christianity, people of faith have recognized and responded to this revelation of God’s love for the poor by loving and helping the poor, often in dramatic and heroic ways. Effective and important hospitals, schools, religious orders, and more – some prominent and well-known, but many more small and unnoticed — illumine the landscape of Christian history.
But there is more to the idea of an “option for the poor” than helping the poor, and what is new comes thanks to two important threads of development in the church and modern society.
First, the twentieth century brought some new insights about poverty. Poverty had been understood, through much of history, as the result mostly of chance, fate, blind luck, personal virtue, or even God’s plan. But we have more recently seen clearly that the experience of poverty — who is poor and who is not and their ability to avoid or overcome poverty — has a lot more to do with the way people have chosen to organize society. Pope John Paul II spoke of these social, political, and legal aspects of poverty as “structures of sin.” In the United States, we have seen — to name an obvious few — legal slavery, Jim Crow laws, “redlining,” and, more broadly, racism and sexism.
Second, the twentieth century also brought a new theological development that in turn had a big impact on church life in some parts of the globe. The 1970s saw the appearance in Latin America of liberation theology, a theological movement that understood Christianity through the prism of the poverty and oppression in the world and also in Scripture. Preferential option for the poor is one important aspect of liberation theology. More than just call to help the poor or acting on behalf of the poor, the option for the poor is also essentially
It is easy to identify each of these elements on the pages of the Bible itself. We also find it expressed in various ways throughout Christian tradition. But it took a new and central place in the work of liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, and Jon Sobrino of El Salvador.
I want to note, finally, that there has at times been some conflict between liberation theology and Vatican authorities. Because of this, some people are under the impression that liberation theology as a project has been condemned by the Church’s teaching authority, which can easily lead to the conclusion that its most important ideas, including the preferential option for the poor, are to be avoided as heterodox or dangerous. Neither is true.
It’s true that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did criticize some aspects of liberation theology in a 1984 document. The focus of its criticism was the way some theologians had at times incorporated Marxist theory too readily into their theological work and politicized the Christian faith. But a follow-up 1986 document from the same Vatican congregation took a much more positive approach and offered support to many of the most important elements of liberation theology.
It’s safe to say that the oppositional element of the preferential option, while it had some place in the teaching and the ministry of John Paul II, has been downplayed by the magisterium, perhaps especially by Benedict XVI. (But see this interesting article from John Allen a couple of years back, on “The lonely liberation theology of Benedict XVI.”) And yet many of its ideas are considered “mainstream,” orthodox Catholic doctrine today, including preferential option for the poor. In fact, we can note that Archbishop Gerhard Müller, appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict in 2012, is said to be a student, friend, and supporter of Gutiérrez. The two even co-authored a book, the title of which could be translated, On the Side of the Poor. “The theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez,” Müller has said, “independently of how you look at it, is orthodox.”
In Part 3, we’ll consider Pope Francis’s preferential option for the poor.
Seated in the long rows of red-draped tables set up in the Sistine Chapel to accommodate the election of a pope, the cardinals of the Catholic Church listened as the votes they had each just cast were read aloud solemnly. Among them was Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Bergoglio had been a front-runner in the papal election of 2005, the one from which Joseph Ratzinger had ultimately emerged as Pope Benedict XVI. But it was eight years later now, and Bergoglio was an older man, 76 years old. Especially following Benedict’s surprise resignation for reasons of the decreased stamina that comes with age, neither Bergoglio nor anyone else his age had a place on almost any of the familiar shortlists of papabili that were so popular in the press in recent weeks.
And yet, here he was, listening to the votes being read aloud on the second day of voting, hearing his name repeated again and again. “Bergoglio…. Bergoglio…. Bergoglio….” Every man in the room knew that they would have a pope when a single name drew two-thirds of the vote – in this case, 77 votes.
Sitting beside Bergoglio as his name was repeated dozens of times – interspersed occasionally with the names of a couple of other men in the room – his longtime friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes squeezed Begoglio’s wrist gently. Then came the moment when his name was read for the seventy-seventh time. Bergoglio would be Pope. Applause broke out among the cardinals. With obvious emotion, as the reading of votes continued, Hummes hugged his friend and kissed him on the cheek. Looking Bergoglio in the eyes, Hummes said quietly, “Don’t forget the poor.”
Begoglio himself publicly recounted this moment just three days later, in his very first major papal audience. He did so in an address to the 6,000 journalists who covered the conclave, as he offered an explanation for the name he had chosen to take as pope. He recounted Cardinal Hummes’s warm and supportive gestures and the comment he made at the moment of his election. Then the new Pope Francis continued:
And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!
In that handful of sentences, explaining a choice he knew would help define his pontificate, the Pope mentions several central elements of Catholic social teaching: the challenge of peace, care for the environment, and poverty. Even as he was being elected and certainly as he was making the first and foundational choice of his new ministry, these principles were very much on his mind. Since that day, he has shown himself to be very intentionally an apostle of Catholic social teaching, and it is precisely these words and efforts that have grabbed the attention of the world, even among many who would not know the meaning of the phrase “Catholic social teaching.”
But among the many facets of Catholic social teaching, it is the issue of poverty that has most clearly been on his mind. It is my conviction that an “option for the poor” has quickly taken a central place in the papal ministry of Pope Francis. That’s the point I intend to dig into in the occasional series of blog posts I introduce here. I will explore what exactly is meant by the phrase; how we see it expressed in the teaching, the decisions, and the daily life of Pope Francis; how what he is doing may be said to lack in some ways a full “option for the poor”; and its significance in the life of the Church and the world today.
I call this series of posts “occasional” because I will post them as I complete them. They may even get some revision after posting, if it seems helpful as I progress along. Though my plan may develop, what I have in mind now is a series of six posts:
Part one: these introductory remarks
Part two: What is an “option for the poor”?
Part three: Pope Francis’s option for the poor
Part four: The Pope on “savage capitalism”
Part five: Continuity and newness: the Pope’s option for the poor in the context of recent history and Catholic social teaching
Part six: Is it a true option for the poor?
Posting them once a week for six weeks would be ideal, but life has a way of throwing things in one’s way, so let’s see how it goes. Thanks for your interest.
UPDATE: See also Part 2 (“What Is an Option for the Poor?”), Part 3 (“Leading a Pastoral Revolution”), Part 4 (“The Pope on ‘Savage Capitalism'”), Part 5 (“Continuity and Newness”), and Part 6 (“Is It a True Option for the Poor?”).