I’m not Catholic; at this point in my life I can best describe myself as agnostic when it comes to my faith, spiritual in my beliefs. But I do find that the teachings of people of all faiths to be instructive at times. Such is the case with Pope Francis. I find this man, the spiritual leader of more than 1.2 billion people, to be a refreshing change from the past.
In his most authoritative writings as pontiff, Francis decried an “idolatry of money” in secular culture and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny.” But he reserved a large part of his critique for what he sees as an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, calling for more local governance and greater inclusiveness — including “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”
The 50,000-word statement is the latest sign that Francis intends to push the church in a new direction. On some issues — such as income inequality and poverty — he is echoing concerns long pursued by his predecessors. On others, such as the management of the church, he is embarking on a new path marked by less central authority.
Below are some excerpts from his statement.
If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat”
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. 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? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people and themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
In this context, 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 in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve 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.
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. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
This position from Pope Francis should have an instructive effect on faithful Catholics, especially political leaders like Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Pope Francis instructs; I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to takeaway their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs” A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule!”
As we approach the holiday season, and the end of the current Congressional year, I urge political leaders, particularly Catholics of the Republican ideology, to do good by the poor. One simple and productive step would be to support the extension and expansion of the food stamp programs that feed the poor. Another would be to extend unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed. And also, stop fighting the provision of health care insurance for the millions of Americans who do not have access to quality, affordable, health care.
As Pope Francis has written in his statement; “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. Inequality is the root of social ills.”