THE BLOG
03/15/2013 03:30 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

What's Behind the New Pope's Name?

It may be reading far too much into the new pope's choice of a papal name -- Francis, after Francis of Assisi -- but those on the left of the moral theological spectrum might hope that it evokes one of St. Francis's deepest moral concerns: the wealth of the church and of Christians generally.

Himself the son of wealth, St. Francis, as some others before him, reacted with existential passion to Jesus' words to the rich young man in the Gospels who asked how he could attain eternal life: Jesus said to him, sell all that you have, give to the poor and follow me. Notice that there are two parts to Jesus' injunction: not only is one to give up wealth, but it is to go to the poor.

One can only guess from the news stories that have come out about the new pope that he himself has taken Jesus' words to heart: He apparently lives quite modestly in a small apartment rather than in the mansion normally provided an Archbishop; he goes to work by bus rather than in a limousine, and he even cooks for himself on occasion. While he is not a Franciscan, he seems to have taken on a Franciscan spirit.

That spirit did lead some early Franciscans into problems with their Church. These problems arose around the issue of ownership (and use) of property and money. Francis laid down in his "Rule" the following prohibition:

"I strictly forbid all the brothers to accept money or property either in person or through another. The brothers shall have nothing of their own, neither house, nor land, nor anything, for the Lord made himself poor for us in this world."

Some Franciscans, known as the "Spirituals," went so far as to claim that neither Jesus nor his disciples owned any property at all. Because of this claim many of them were deemed by Church authorities to have fallen into heresy because, if taken seriously, Francis' injunction on ownership is an implicit critique of the Church's ownership of property. The accumulation of vast amounts of wealth by the Church would seem to be in tension with Francis' call for extreme poverty by those claiming to represent Christ's spirit on earth, such as the leaders known, tellingly, as "princes" of the Church. While the Church has recently been losing some of its wealth to pay settlements in the sex abuse scandals, and actual estimates of its real worth are hard to come by, it is still an extremely wealthy institution possessing well up in the billions of dollars of property and investments.

Might it be too much to hope that this virtually obscene amount of church wealth might, under Pope Francis, be redirected to the truly poor, in accord with the two parts of Jesus's words to the rich young man? Might this be what the new pope has in mind? Probably not, especially if the re-distribution of that wealth were to occur through politically directed institutional structures such as tax systems and public policies. But could it be done through private, non-political charitable acts by the church itself? The new pope by his choice of name and personal lifestyle is clearly sympathetic to the needs of the poor but is, like his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, apparently quite hostile to the Liberation theologians, especially in Latin America, who have revealed the structural and systemic injustices of a market system which fails the poor. This hostility is based on liberation theology's overreliance on Marxist analysis and its alleged downplaying of the spiritual elements in the Christian faith. This is a mis-reading of liberation theology but it has informed the new pope's understanding of it.

Nevertheless, perhaps without embracing liberation theology in its fullness (which would be politically unlikely), Pope Francis could use the choice of his name to recall the message of St. Francis' teaching on the holiness of self-chosen poverty, not just for individuals but especially for the church which claims to represent the message of Jesus himself. Pope Francis may be trying, in an overly subtle way, to remind the church of the Franciscan suspicion of too much wealth even in, perhaps especially in, the hands of those who speak officially for the church. The Franciscan heritage in this regard is like dynamite: It might remind many simply of the personal holiness of a saint who consorted with lepers, but it might remind others of the potential for a radical reassessment of church wealth and its potential to meet the needs of the poor, not just individually through charity, but through structural and systemic changes in the economic practices of the developed world.

Perhaps there is something in a name, after all.