There are rumours that Pope Francis sneaks out of the Vatican at night, dons cap and fake goatee, and hangs out on the streets of Rome giving alms to the poor. And it turns out, except for perhaps the cap and goatee, that the rumours are probably true. In fact, this has been a habit (pardon me) with Francis.
As Bishop of Buenos Aries, he would often put on the garb of a regular priest and sit with the homeless, talk, eat with them, “to show that they were loved.” (This was after his days as a bar bouncer…yes it’s true.)
Ever since his election in March, Pope Francis has made poverty a central issue. Of course, as he’s noted, he’s not onto something new, he’s simply pointing at the heart of the gospel.
The fact that he calls the church to minister to the poor, and that he has personally modelled this almoner mission, has been lauded even by his detractors.
However, a month ago the Pope released his 200-plus page Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. At root, it’s an impassioned exhortation for the faithful to proclaim the gospel by living it out. And so, by rights, it is both a meditation on the Christian motivation of love—the example, par excellence, being Jesus—and a clear-bell call for social justice and economic equitability.
The principle target of the Pope’s critique is our “idolatry of money.” And his most pointed reproof is what he calls “unfettered capitalism.”
“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.”
Note here that the Pope has not decried regulated free markets. These can, and have, served humanity and have reduced poverty. What the Pope is distressed over is that today, humanity serves capitalism.
And so he 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?”
And there’s more,
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”
As might have been expected, the once hailed Pope has been excoriated. Within days Rush Limbaugh foamed, “This is beyond Catholicism—it’s pure Marxism!” At the same time Forbes magazine and a JP Morgan economist scolded the Pope for his lack of economic acumen. Fox Business host Stuart Varney weighed in to say, “The Pope is engaging in neo-socialism,” while a Fox analyst observed that the document “reveals a disturbing ignorance” by the Pope. Not to be left out, Sarah Palin was, “alarmed by the Pope’s liberalism.”
Perhaps Francis will recall the words of the late Dom Helder Camara of Brazil—known as the Bishop of the slums—who once noted,
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
A few days ago Pope Francis commented on the charge of being a Marxist:
“Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
As for the “disturbing ignorance” of Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope said, “There is nothing in the exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the church.”
And given the chance to expand on his critique of capitalism’s “trickle-down” economics, the Pope said,
“The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger, nothing ever comes out for the poor.”
Despite the Catholic Church’s great failings, and the ecclesial-bound exclusions that still need fixing, it is refreshing to hear these words from the Pontiff.
As Christmas approaches and our thoughts turn to that ancient narrative—whether you take the story as historical or mythological—there is something profoundly hopeful about the words and emulating actions of Pope Francis.
Francis has reminded us that it was as an infant, from an impoverished and marginalized family, that God came to come sit among us: hope for the poor; a scandal to the rapacious rich.