During a recent address at the Napa Institute in California, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput set the record straight about Pope Francis, saying that words like “liberal” and “conservative” to describe him are not only meaningless in a Catholic sense but divisive as well.
Being a Capuchin Franciscan, Chaput said too many people think of the pope’s namesake as a kind of a “13th century flower child” when in reality, this saint was radically obedient to the Church and the insistence of living the Gospel to the full. Pope Francis is following the same path by saying he wants “a Church that is poor and for the poor” but grounds this goal in Jesus Christ, something that is a “very Franciscan idea,” Chaput said.
He also explained that Pope Francis’ Argentinian background lends an important context to what he says, particularly about the economy.
“The Holy Father knows poverty and violence. He knows the plague of corrupt politics and oppressive governments. He has seen the cruelty of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. He has seen elites who rig the political system in their favor and keep the poor in poverty. When we Americans think about economics, we think in terms of efficiency and production. When Francis thinks about economics, he thinks in terms of human suffering. We’re blessed to live in a rich, free, stable country. We can’t always see what Francis sees.”
This is why Chaput believes it is a mistake to describe Francis as “liberal” – and much less a “Marxist.”
“As I told the Italian newspaper La Stampa in an interview some weeks ago, words like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ don’t describe Catholic belief. They divide what shouldn’t be divided. We should love the poor and love the unborn child. Service to the oppressed and service to the family; defense of the weak and defense of the unborn child; belief in the value of business and belief in restraints on predatory business practices — all these things spring from the same Catholic commitment to human dignity. There’s nothing ‘progressive’ about killing an unborn human child or allowing it to happen. And there’s nothing ‘conservative’ about ignoring the cries of the poor.”
However, just as G.K. Chesterton once said, every age gets the saint it needs, not necessarily the one it wants. Chaput believes this holds true for popes as well – which explains why not everyone is pleased with Pope Francis.
“Chesterton said that saints are so often martyrs because they’re the kind of antidote the world mistakes for poison. The website Salon recently ran an article complaining about the good press Francis has gotten. It argued: ‘The new sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe is the same as the old sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe. … It is ludicrous to suggest that a man who denies comprehensive reproductive health care (including all forms of birth control, including condoms and abortion) and comprehensive family planning is a man who cares about the poor of this world’.”
As harsh as this sounds, folks on the political right “have attacked him in words almost as strong, though for different reasons,” Chaput said.
True, what Francis says about economic justice may be hard for some to hear, which is why Chaput calls upon us to read the Holy Father’s writings for ourselves – without the divisive media spin.
“Then we need to open our hearts to what God is telling us through his words,” he advised.
It may surprise some to hear that in matters of economic justice, “Francis’ concerns are the same as Benedict’s and John Paul II’s and Pius XI’s and Leo XIII’s. He understands economic matters through the lens of Church teaching in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Like his predecessors, he defends human dignity in a world that consistently threatens it. But Francis stresses more directly than they did that human solidarity is a necessary dimension of human dignity. We need both. Human dignity requires not just the protection of individuals, as in our pro-life work, but an ongoing commitment to the common good.”
What Francis is saying is that “we witness best when we save the unborn and when we feed their mothers, when we help immigrants, when we serve the poor, when we stand against division and exploitation, when we speak for a more just social order.”
When we don’t witness that way, “a society as broken as ours won’t pay attention to our moral and religious convictions. And that’s fair enough. Why should anyone believe that the Gospel is good news when we live as if it weren’t? When we do witness in the way Francis describes, people more easily listen. And then their hearts may burn for Jesus Christ as the disciples’ did on the road to Emmaus.”
Chaput also points out that Francis has never offered any systematic thoughts about the economic policies he feels are best. Acknowledging that there seems to be some ambiguity in the pope’s thinking, “when he calls for a better distribution of wealth among social classes, he doesn’t say how this should be done and what a proper distribution would look like or who will decide who gets what. But he’d probably say that he’s giving us the principles of a rightly ordered social and economic life as the Catholic Church understands them . . . ”
As for his social concerns, Francis is “classically Catholic”, Chaput said. “He stresses that the social doctrine of the Church ‘maintains that one can live authentically human relations of friendship and sociability, of solidarity and reciprocity within economic activity’ (Encountering Christ, p. 147). Business is a proper activity of man. In Evangelii Gaudium, he calls it ‘a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life … striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all’ (203). He does place ‘the social function of property and the universal destination of goods’ before private property. We’re given private ownership of goods because they need to be protected and increased, so the goods we have will better serve the common good.”
Contrary to popular opinion, Francis does not espouse a “nanny state” but professes just as the Church does that government should cultivate a culture of work, not charity. He believes that welfare programs are needed to meet urgent social needs, “but they should be temporary responses to those needs (Evangelii Gaudium, 202). To ensure people’s welfare means providing access to education and basic health care, but, ‘above all, employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives’ (109).”
Francis also rejects the idea that helping the poor is just a government duty.
“It’s our job too,” Chaput says. “And [Francis] warns that when Jesus returns, he’ll judge us harshly if we blame the government for poverty rather than doing something about it ourselves (Encountering Christ, p. 130-131).”
He believes government has a necessary role, however, and once wrote that “Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic,” Francis writes. “It has to be ordered to the attainment of the common good, which is the responsibility above all of the political community.”
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis calls politics “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good” (204).
Francis insists that wealth should “be distributed among each of the people and social classes” not in the sense of government taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor, but in the sense that all of society must care for the vulnerable among them.
“So these are a few ways Francis believes human solidarity, linked to human dignity, should be expressed in practice,” Chaput said.”But again, he never lets us off the hook as individuals. He won’t let us point at ‘them’ (big government and big corporations) as the people mainly responsible for creating a just society. Francis is always the pastor, the shepherd of families and individual believers, even in his more theoretical writings.”
Chaput concludes: “At the heart of this pope’s thoughts about economic justice is not a theory or an ideology, but the Person of Jesus Christ. And all of us who call ourselves Christians should see in that a reason to hope.”
Click here to read the full text of Archbishop Chaput’s remarks.
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