RELIGION
03/14/2013 07:24 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2013

Pope Francis' Record On Poverty Attracts Praise, Criticism From Catholic Church Scholars

The day after his election, Pope Francis asked Argentine bishops to skip his formal installation on Tuesday and instead show "closeness" by doing "acts of charity for the neediest."

Perhaps more than other popes in recent memory, Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, has quickly set the tone of his papacy by focusing on those whom Jesus called "the least of these," the poor and suffering on the lowest rungs of society. A Jesuit, Francis followed the tradition of his order whose members live simple, communal lives of poverty.

Reported anecdotes abound of Francis' symbolic first actions. Instead of adorning himself with an ornate gold cross as popes traditionally do, he wears a simple cross around his neck. Rather than riding in the "popemobile," he joined cardinals on a bus back to their temporary Vatican residence after his election. On Thursday, he stopped by the priests' residence where they had stayed before the papal conclave to grab his bags and pay his bill, reportedly to set an example of how priests should behave. Even before his election, he lived in a simple Buenos Aires apartment with another priest instead of an elaborate archbishop's residence and rode the bus to the chancery.

But though church observers expect Francis to speak more frequently and loudly on economic issues than his predecessors, some are wondering if his words and symbolic acts will translate into action that helps solve the world's growing economic divides.

"It's very clear that he cares about the poor and I celebrate him bringing global poverty to the forefront. As a man from the Global South, I think he'll have a clearer idea about the global economic structures that privilege Europe and the U.S.," said Miguel A. De La Torre, a professor of social ethics and Latino/a studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. "But I'm concerned his solution will be giving charity" to the poor.

De La Torre said Francis in his previous roles did not significantly impact the roots of poverty.

"The more effective way of dealing with poverty is to change the social structures that create poverty, but when he was bishop and cardinal, we didn't see that. Quite the contrary, he was hostile toward liberation theology, for example," said De La Torre.

The popular activist movement arose in Latin America in the 1970s, and focused on God's identification with the oppressed and uplifting the poor. While its reach for social justice was praised by Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, it also was criticized by Benedict, among other church leaders, for being Marxist.

De La Torre added that as the head of the nation's Jesuits in the 1970s, Francis also was criticized for not taking a strong stance against the "Dirty Wars," during which an Argentine military dictatorship resulted in the deaths or mysterious disappearances of thousands of leftist and political dissidents.

Yet, at the same time, as Buenos Aires' archbishop, Francis publicly clashed with the Argentine government and political figures. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the midst of a wrenching economic crisis in Argentina, Francis publicly questioned the nation's free-market policies and blamed them for increasing poverty.

More recently, during a 2007 address to Latin American bishops, Francis said their ministries were in "the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."

"You can tell that this is a man who is speaking from experience, not in a lecture. His sermons have talked about proximity to the poor. Benedict continued a strong line in Catholic social teaching in general, but I don't think he had that proximity. Francis does," said Michael Lee, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University.

"He is fond of quoting from the Latin American bishops who as a group have been strong and vocal against structural poverty and the downsides of globalization in underdeveloped countries in Latin America and Africa."

Lee pointed out that while John Paul II and Benedict also frequently spoke and wrote about poverty, they made bigger headlines for their conservative stands on issues such as homosexuality, contraception and marriage -- issues on which Francis agrees.

He added that Catholic views on economic issues, such as the "preferential option for the poor," also were more commonly discussed recently outside Latin America. During discussions last year in the United States over the federal budget, U.S. bishops strongly spoke out against Republicans for proposed cuts to social services.

"When you look at the economy and Pope Francis, you won't be able to find somebody further from the Paul Ryan budget in the world," Lee said.

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