Nearly all preachers have heard the line about the aim of the Gospel being “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Pope Francis achieved just that end with the release in late November of the first official document of his papacy.
His apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” has left everyone who takes religion and the church seriously scratching their heads or nodding in affirmation.
Take Ken Langone, a founder of Home Depot who is spearheading the $180 million renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and has told CNBC that some wealthy donors may pare back their giving to the project because of the pope’s statements.
Or Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has said he upholds Catholic teaching “as best I can” and believes his policies match Catholic teaching because they emphasize small institutions close to the people — for example, churches — over the role of state or federal government. Ryan had no comment on the pope’s exhortation.
Rush Limbaugh, a Protestant, was more blunt, denouncing the pope’s document as “pure Marxism.”
Amid all the angst stirred by the pope’s criticism of a global financial system that excludes the poor, there are a couple of things all believers should hear. First, a real reordering of society around the teachings of Jesus is radical stuff.
“Money must serve and not rule. … While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few” is a biblical theme about the place of wealth in life’s ultimate priorities. Who among us doesn’t see, just as the pope does, that those ultimate values are being supplanted?
The cure is not to reshuffle the deck but to make people a priority rather than things and acquisitions.
Yet Pope Francis is criticized because he calls the world to share common, fairer values and adapt its systems to those that are more just.
“Some people,” he wrote, “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 in the world. 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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
The pope’s words were published just as Americans were preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving and as our government cut food stamps for 47 million people. Then just after Christmas, 1.3 million Americans lost their unemployment benefits.
Likewise, the pope’s words were released as Texas Gov. Rick Perry continued to defend rejecting nearly 100 percent coverage for the cost of expanding Medicaid. And while hundreds of thousands of underpaid fast-food and retail workers took to the street to protest low wages.
These people are the excluded that Pope Francis was writing about.
His teaching is controversial because it says work is not just an exchange of goods and services with a value set by market forces. It says that charity can be the antithesis of justice.
Or as the pope wrote, “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.”
Who can add anything but amen to that?