Pope calls church to action to liberate poor

Pope Francis

The capitalist media have been all atwitter (pun intended) over Pope Francis ever since he took leadership of the world's one billion Roman Catholics, but perhaps never so intensely as when he released a document recently excoriating the destructiveness of contemporary capitalism.

In reality, the document contains little that is entirely new; its denunciation of the anti-human effects of the "idolatry" of the market and the radical inequality resulting from it could already be found in statements by Francis' two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which in turn were rooted in a tradition of Catholic social doctrine that goes back at least to the 1890 encyclical Rerum Novarum and beyond that to the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. What is new in Francis' document, however, is his insistence on the centrality of this issue for the mission of the Catholic Church.

The document in question, titled Evangelii Gaudium, "The Joy of the Gospel," does not set itself up as primarily concerned with social justice; its theme is "evangelization," a Christian term meaning sharing the "good news" of God's love for humanity shown in Jesus Christ, which in turn must lead to active love of human beings for one another. (Francis carefully distinguishes this from "proselytizing," trying to "sell" people on becoming Christians and joining the church.) It is a very rich text of over 200 pages.

The pope situates his denunciation of capitalism squarely in the context of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life (the same principle that right-wing Catholics appeal to in trying to make issues like abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage the center of Catholic concern): "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."

Pointing out that "such an economy kills," Francis asks, "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?" He laments that "today everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless."

The pope is not content, however, merely to utter moralizing denunciations. He attacks the prevailing capitalist economic ideology that "justifies" these evils and even dares to take on "those wielding economic power" - that is, what Marxists term "the ruling class" - and the "prevailing economic system" itself: "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

It's not hard to recognize in what the Pope here denounces precisely the ideology of the Republican Party and other leading capitalist circles.

As I pointed out above, most of these ideas can be found in previous papal documents devoted to social justice. But what is remarkable here is that Evangelii Guudium is not, on the face of it, centered on social issues; it is devoted to the "churchly" subject of "evangelization." Francis devotes a lengthy chapter of Evangelii Gaudium to what he insists is the essential social element of the church's mission.

Evangelii Gaudium is labeled an "apostolic exhortation"-that is, not a mere exposition of doctrine but a call to action. And that action must include struggle for the needs of the poor and against the radical and growing inequality in today's world: "Both Christian preaching and life...are meant to have an impact on society." Nor does Francis see it sufficient simply to make moral pronouncements; regarding the church's social teaching, he insists "we cannot help but be concrete - without presuming to enter into details - lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one." The pope is calling for a church of action: "Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor."

Nor does Francis believe that the church should "go it alone" in this effort, setting itself up as the sole arbiter of social justice. He admits that "neither the pope nor the church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems" - a clear call to what we would call a broad-based coalition to attack the injustices of our current system.

This can be taken as an invitation to people of various worldviews and socio-political ideologies and theories to join together with the church in struggling for social justice - an invitation well worth accepting.

Photo: Pope Francis (Catholic Church -England and Wales/CC)