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The Pope is Making Headlines! Why Are We All Fighting?

December 19, 2013



With all the talk about Pope Francis being named Time Magazine's Person of the Year, which seems to be in sequence with his 'Joy of the Gospel' exhortation, one cannot help but wonder where to find the truth underneath the sound bites and headlines. 

In regards to 'The Joy of the Gospel,' the majority of the media truly is missing the point. The exhortation is primarily concerned with the "reform of the Church in her missionary outreach," not with offering a point of departure for capitalist v. socialist debates.

 'The Joy of the Gospel' transcends the ideologies of both capitalism and socialism, as genuine Catholicism always does; and, as Pope Francis once again rattles some feathers, he has outwitted us all because, while we're getting lost in our own interpretations of his words, and upset over what we deem to be misinterpretations from others, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that we're all talking about Catholicism, what it teaches, its role in society, the Christian ideals as they relate to political and economic systems, and the pope is front and center on some of the world's largest stages!

Just as Pope Francis intended, dialogue between communities -- some that are polar opposites -- is finally happening; and when dialogue happens, division diminishes; then good people from both sides start working together for the common good; then we finally make real strides in combating the real evils in our world. 

Back to the pope's original point: the Church must be "permanently in a state of mission," and to that end the pontiff may have different ideas than some Catholics. He speaks of "certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel," and says when we're living the Gospel we must not look like 'we just came from a funeral.' With this exhortation, the reader does get the impression that the Church is in a crisis, and needs to be revived. 

This is a piece of work that is meant to make Christians more active in living their faith. Why has the media lost sight of that? And why has it run off with one section in one chapter that speaks of our obligation as Christians to include the poor in our society? And why is this seen as an anti-capitalist position?

The pope writes, "The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them" (paragraph 189).

The exhortation emphasizes our responsibility to help the poor and promote fair distribution of goods and wealth, but Pope Francis takes this stance from a Christian standpoint, pulling from the heritage of saints who personally reached out to the poor among them. We must not forget that he is addressing Christian believers, not political and economic leaders.

He is more concerned with the conduct of individuals in common life. For instance, he speaks adamantly against complacency and stagnancy in the Church, warning the faithful about a "spiritual worldliness" that focuses on the administration and prestige of the Church while never truly meeting the needs of the people of the community in which we live.  

"True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others" (paragraph 88), he writes. This is critical to understanding his message, because he believes personal charity, not any political or economic system, is the best weapon against poverty.

But we cannot just ignore how he speaks of the dangers of "trickle down theories" and free or autonomous markets, while saying nothing about the dangers of government-regulated economies. On everything else in this exhortation, on his call for Christians to be more missionary in spirit, on his plea that we hear the cry of the poor, and most importantly on his emphasis of the fact that the Gospel is a gift of joy for all of humanity, on all these points he is stellar in exercising his papal authority in faith and morals. 

When he treads into the territory of politics and economics, however, he does not continue the Catholic tradition of criticizing capitalism and socialism in equal proportion. Subsequently, he is not wrong in his critique of free markets. What troubles me is his silence regarding the problems with the most popular alternative.

On these issues I wish his stance was more in line with the Church's rich social doctrine tradition, as described in Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno and other social encyclicals that champion distributism, which is in essence the direct distribution and production of wealth and goods by as wide a variety of people as possible.  

Distributism is hardly mentioned in the discussions or commentaries I've listened to or read regarding this exhortation. Pope Francis is saintly in his daily practice of the corporal works of mercy. Why doesn't he show similar charity in his teaching by sharing with the world the fullness of the Church's social doctrine? Maybe a critique of socialism is in the works. The pope has been known to throw curve balls like that.

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