On economic life, Pope Francis sees his responsibility in clear terms:
The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but the Pope has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them. The Pope appeals for disinterested solidarity and for a return to person-centred ethics in the world of finance and economics. (5/16/213)
This strong call for ethics in economics is not new. He stands in continuity with his predecessors, particularly Pope Benedict in Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate. Francis’ mind is with the Church and its constant teaching. Where Francis is unique is his directness, urgency and passion. It’s where he comes from and where he stands that makes a difference. Francis’ heart is with the poor; his feet were planted in the villas miseriasof Latin America. He calls for a Church “of and for the poor” that is not turned in on itself, but “in the streets.”
He has lived the Church’s social teaching in his own ministry so he speaks confidently and bluntly on its demands. Having challenged the Marxist temptations of some elements of liberation theology, he is more than comfortable challenging some elements of “savage capitalism” (5/21/13). He refused to worship at the altar of Marxist utopianism; he won’t bend a knee to the utilitarian advocates of the invisible hand of the market. As someone who challenged government corruption and overreach in Argentina, Francis recognizes the limitations of the state, but won’t abandon Catholic teaching on the obligation of government to protect the poor and seek the common good in economic life.
Francis is not a chaplain to ecclesial or ideological factions, but challenges all of us. We cannot be a “compassionate NGO” or “slumbering” Christians. The pope’s message on the moral imperative for greater ethics in economic life is not conservative or liberal, but Catholic. It is not socialist or capitalist, but Christian.
Secular liberals are learning that Francis is convinced that Catholic teaching on human life and dignity requires us to defend the unborn child, the immigrant, the exploited worker, the frail elderly and essential institutions of faith and family. Economic conservatives are learning that he truly places the poor first and measures economic life for how it treats “the least of these.” Pope Francis takes on the secularism that suggests we can build the good society without God and the materialism that says we measure society by what we have or produce instead of how we care for one another, especially the poor and vulnerable. He takes on excessive individualism in both personal life where “choice” trumps almost all else and in economic life where “the absolute autonomy of markets” is the source of all power and wisdom. Worship of these secular idols undermines the common good and leaves the poor behind.
Francis is focused on the dignity of the human person, not abstract economic theory or the ideologies of left or right. Francis is particularly scornful of ideologues: “The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from – from (whatever side) – is a falsification of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said April 19“And these ideologues, as we have seen in the history of the Church, end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness – and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they understand nothing,” he added.
Ecclesial chaplains to ideological factions will find Francis threatening because of his consistency in warning us of the dangers of rampant secularism and materialism, from unrestrained markets and misguided government. The ecclesial spin masters claim “he is one of us”…social activist or evangelical Catholic, reformer or enforcer. Francis doesn’t fit our categories. He is a caring pastor in a global parish and a powerful teacher who proclaims the truths of our faith clearly and bluntly. He reminds us of Jesus confronting the moneychangers and proclaiming the parable of the Last Judgment. Not a bad model for a Pope.
John Carr is the “Washington Front” Columnist for America and the Director of the new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. He was the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department on Justice, Peace and Human Development for more than two decades.