Pope Francis articulates a vision of social justice and compassion that necessarily upsets power and privilege.by Jeffrey Cavanaugh
On July 27, Pope Francis marked the centenary of the official beginning of the First World War with a solemn call to the world to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Dialogue, Francis told those gathered at St. Peter’s Square, was the solution — not more war. Citing words uttered by another pope — Benedict XV — a century ago, he begged for combatants in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine to stop what was “a useless massacre.”
Above all, said Francis, war is a crime not just against God, but a sin against our very future, as it always leaves scars on those who are most vulnerable — the children. Children in war zones, said Francis, “are deprived of the hope of a worthwhile life, of a future.” War leaves nothing, but “dead children, injured children, mutilated children orphaned children, children whose toys are things left over from war.” Above all, said the pope, war creates children “who can’t smile anymore.”
Neatly summarizing his, Christianity’s, and nearly every other known faith on Earth’s position on the subject, Francis noted, “Everything is lost with war, nothing is lost with peace. Never more war.” Then, his voice cracking with emotion, the pope told combatants: “I ask you with all my heart, it’s time to stop. Stop, please!”
Two days later, the pope went a step further in urging mankind to renounce war by issuing a “nota verbale” to the Vatican’s embassies around the world, instructing official representatives of the Holy See to work for peace in every way possible. And during a papal visit to Jerusalem in May, the pope tried to intervene in at least one of the world’s most intractable conflicts by inviting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the Vatican for peace talks.
According to reports, Francis went further than just offering the good offices of the Vatican for mediation efforts. He denounced the situation that confronted the Holy Land shared by three faiths as unacceptable and explicitly called for Israelis and Palestinians to unite around the long-dead two-state peace plan in order to finally settle the conflict.
In an unprecedented endorsement of a two-state solution from the Vatican, Francis said, “The time has come for everyone to find the courage to forge a peace that rests on the acknowledgment by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
In another gesture that has since been lost as Israeli bombs have rained down on Gaza in recent weeks, the pope — while on that same state visit in May — stopped his open-topped popemobile at the Israeli-built separation barrier that divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem while on the way to deliver mass at Manger Square — what Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus. He got out and prayed at the concrete barrier separating the two parts of the Holy Land, and while doing so, he rested his head near graffiti that read, “Free Palestine.”
The Gospel according to Francis
It is not hard to see what Pope Francis is trying to communicate, either directly or symbolically. War is an abomination that destroys and corrupts everything it touches. But, even more than that, the sources of war itself — dispossession, poverty, pride and greed — are also unmitigated evils that must be confronted and turned back. Taken as a whole, the philosophy emanating from the Vatican under the first pope to be named after St. Francis of Assisi is one that is both consistent, refreshing and yet very jarring for those grown accustomed to a staid and complacent Catholic Church comfortable mostly in serving the needs of the rich and powerful and content to scold both sexual sin and left-wing rabble rousers.
No, the Christianity being preached by Francis is something altogether different from the type the West has known for decades and which has been long and loudly shouted from wealthy, lily-white archbishoprics and megachurches. Instead of preaching a version of Christianity that is conservative, pro-capitalist, and tilted toward protecting the interests and tastes of the powerful, Francis is letting slip a type of faith that is much more focused on justice than tradition and more concerned with the lives of real people as men and women actually live than with abstract notions of right and wrong derived from some dusty and obtuse theology texts. It is a type of faith that is powerful, popular and very attractive to even the non-religious precisely because it is authentic and takes seriously its own precepts for living justly.
Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the Christianity being preached by Francis today is revolutionary in the sense that it seeks to confront power, not coddle or co-opt it. Like Christ preaching under the watchful eyes of the Romans and the Pharisees — the empire and elite united in an unholy and self-serving status quo — Francis is articulating a vision of social justice and compassion that necessarily upsets power and privilege. In a world built on exclusion and inequality, Francis’ vision — both that of the pope and his namesake saint — is one premised on exactly the opposite.
This philosophy is probably best articulated in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun — a 13th century writing attributed to the saint that portrays mankind not just as one and equal before God, but before each other and all of nature, too. In the text, St. Francis refers to animals as brothers and sisters, rejects material accumulation, and praises God for Mother Earth — whom feeds, cares for, and rules us all. Radical in the Medieval Era when it was first articulated, it remains today a vital reminder that in a Christianity that has often become synonymous with power, wealth and hypocrisy, there are strains within it that remain close to the heart of the man the faith is named after.
The church in a post-Christian world
This is a good thing not just for those concerned with social justice, but also for the Catholic Church itself. The church in the West is dying. In Europe — the ancient heartland of Christianity — the pews are empty. After centuries of holding the continent firmly in its grip and then riding on the power of Europe to lands much further afield, cultural evolution has led European civilization to abandon Christianity as unnecessary. For better or worse, the church has come to be seen by Europeans as an anti-democratic, anti-modern institution that does little to benefit average people.
In the past when Europeans still believed in God, the result of such disenchantment would have been religious schism and war — which is exactly what happened when Protestants emerged out from under Catholicism to start their own brands of Christian faith. Today, however, Europeans largely no longer believe in God, and instead of adopting new faiths to replace the old, they’ve merely let the old die on the vine. America, too, is slowly going down this path and the pews are sitting empty here, too. The West, then, is becoming a post-Christian place just as Christianity is finding a new home in the lands its believers once colonized.
The irony is that just as the West is becoming post-Christian, the church, led by Pope Francis, is articulating a vision of Christianity that is well-positioned to succeed in its new 21st century home. Bereft of dogma and a hang-up on rules about sexual sin, a Catholic Church that unflinchingly approaches issues of dispossession, poverty and injustice could be a massive force for good, especially in the developing world where its future resides. Rather than quietly doing charity work as it has always done, a Vatican actually concerned with real life as it is lived could instead use its remaining influence to bring attention to the world’s problems and try to force the great and the powerful to act on them.
The question is whether those in the West with the means to actually do something about these issues will follow such a rabble-rousing, left-leaning and increasingly brown-and-black church. After all, Francis’ message — like Christ’s — is not an easy one for those comfortable with the status quo to listen to and it is sobering to recall that Jesus was put to death for challenging so openly the hypocrisy of power. While it’s not likely that Pope Francis will be similarly crucified, his unpopularity in the right-wing circles of Europe and the United States — where the GOP-controlled House actually blocked a bill that would congratulate the new pope on his election because Francis sounds “too much like Obama” — is testament enough that many are unwilling to heed the new pope’s call to social justice.
If the Catholic Church and the rest of Christianity are to avoid obsolescence in this new century, then this kind of disdain for social justice of the type articulated by Pope Francis is going to have to be overcome. The simple truth is that the world’s problems revolve far more around issues like those Francis concerns himself with than the lesser issues of sexual morality that have for so long consumed attention in the West. The pope seems to know and understand this, but as of yet, it is unclear whether Western Catholics — so long used to a very different kind of Christianity — will follow in time enough to save the church from itself.