THE BLOG
12/12/2013 01:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2014

Pope Francis: Man of the Year and a Sign of Some Hope

In my recent book, Letters to Pope Francis, I challenge the new pontiff to live up to his purposefully chosen namesake and alert him to how people would hold his feet to the fire because no other pope had ever taken up that iconic name.

Most people do know that St Francis of Assisi stood for: ecology and non-chauvinistic relationships to the plant and animal worlds; a preferential option for the poor; and (this may be slightly less acknowledged) an admirable and almost startling balance of gender justice and consciousness. In his celebrated poem, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," Francis moves deftly back and forth between masculine and feminine names for the sacred.

People who care about such matters recognize fresh consciousness in the pope's refusal to move into the palatial headquarters known as the papal apartments, his refusal to drive in limousines and more. These actions, plus his strong words denouncing the "idols" and "gods" of the marketplace, together seem to be framing a story of a different kind of pope and papacy. Such a story is raising hope among activists and progressive Catholics, many of whom have left the church behind but still recognize its potential power as a source for good in many parts of the world.

Theologically, Pope Francis is speaking the radical language of Vatican II abandoned by his two predecessors, that the church is NOT the hierarchy but "the people" whose "sensus fidelium" actually matters. The effort to poll parishioners about such subjects as birth control, abortion, women's rights and homosexual unions is a first -- though it was very badly handled and many bishops are not involving the lay people at all.

One sign that Pope Francis' message is being heard is the steam emerging from people who do not want to hear about justice, economic equality or church as people of God. (Rush Limbaugh, for example, called the pope's words "pure Marxism.")

But right-wing Catholic nay-sayers are caught in something of a trap. It will be interesting to see how they emerge and this includes stalwart power brokers like the four right-wing Catholics on the Supreme Court, all of whom voted for "Citizens United" -- Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and John Roberts (throw in Kennedy also for his scandalous vote in favor of Citizens United.) Then there is Newt Gingrich, a new convert to Catholicism (under pope Ratzinger); aspiring presidential candidate Paul Ryan (whose philosophy owes much more to atheist Ayn Rand than to the Gospels but who still claims to be a stalwart Catholic); Rick Santorum; John Boehner.

How these politicians dance around this pope's pronouncements on economic justice will be a spectacle that deserves watching.

Neocon and theocon George Weigel is famous for complaining about Catholics who take some of the teachings of the church and leave others out -- but he did the same with the war in Iraq (both popes he so admires were against it) -- and being a committed neocon he never apologized for getting us into Iraq. Yet he constantly trumps his version of Catholicism, which is really papalism, as the only way. "The truth of what is taught by the pope and the college of bishops is not a matter for debate" he tells us in his most recent (and scariest) book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church[1].

Will he continue to invoke papalism after reading what this pope is preaching -- that "unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities" are a form of "terrorism"?

Being the first pope from what we call "the third world," Pope Francis can be expected to understand the tides of history and of economic oppression differently than most North Americans. I end my letters to the pope suggesting that he and the Dalai Lama make a world tour together hitting most continents to speak to the "Revolution in Values" that our times call for.

This is not because change comes primarily from the top down, but because a few at the top (whom the media will be almost required to report about) can, by speaking out together, put wind in the sails of those millions and indeed billions who pray for and/or work for a saner world.

Together they could speak to the obvious and real moral issues of our day: Economic inequality based on a system of avarice not only at the top but in the consumer bottom and middle; gender injustice (something the Catholic Church has to address internally as well); ecological destruction; unemployment, especially among the young; the pressing need for religious and spiritual interfaith or deep ecumenism; the necessary and desired marriage of science and spirituality (as opposed to silly fundamentalism either by religion or by science).

The young could be deeply inspired by such a road show and I have no doubt that the two principals would themselves learn from one another.

Among the teachings of Pope Francis that stand out are the following: "The globalization that makes everything uniform is essentially imperialist... it is not human. In the end it is a way to enslave the nations." [2] Is globalization enslaving the nations? Serious words worthy of a serious discussion.

He says: "Christianity condemns both Communism and wild capitalism with the same vigor" and one needs to reject the "wild economic liberalism we see today" and "seek equal opportunities and rights and strive for social benefits, dignified retirement, vacation time, rest, and freedom of unions."

He denounces the "flight of money to foreign countries" as a sin because it dishonors "the people that worked to generate" that wealth. He also condemns those who hide their wealth in off-shore accounts to avoid paying taxes that are so important for the common good.

Pope Francis has said: "The option for the poor comes from the first centuries of Christianity. It is the Gospel itself." But when he preaches this, he is called a "Maoist or Trotskyite."

He endorses small communities over what he calls "hierarchical mega-institutions" because these better "nurture their own spirituality" and after all the "origin of Christianity was 'parochial and later organized into small communities."

"Repair my church in ruins," he said on taking over the office of the papacy. He seems to get it. The schismatic church of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) has left a Catholicism which the young have abandoned en masse. They left a church in ruins run by Opus Dei cardinals and bishops all over the world.

As I concluded in my book, The Pope's War, I see the destruction of the Catholic Church as we know it to be the work of the Holy Spirit. It is time to simplify the message and the presence of those who follow a Christ path. It is time to travel with backpacks on our backs, not basilicas. The pope's work will not bring Catholics "back to the church" but hopefully it will inspire Christians and non-Christians alike to consider the basic teachings of Jesus around compassion and justice and start acting accordingly.

Says Pope Francis: It is a "savage capitalism" that teaches "the logic of profit at any cost" and exploitation of people. Unfettered capitalism is a "new tyranny" and "today we are living in an unjust international system in which 'King Money' is at the center." This "throwaway culture discards young people as well as its older people... A whole generation of young people does not have the dignity that is brought by work."

In his recent document entitled "The Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis speaks bluntly as all the prophets do, saying "No" to "trickle-down" economics as "never having been confirmed by the facts" and being built on a "crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power."

"No to an economy of exclusion... An economy of exclusion and inequality kills... "

"No to the new idolatry of money... 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... Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a defied market, which becomes the only rule."

"No to a financial system which rules rather than serves... Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings."

"No to the inequality which spawns violence. [Violence happens not] simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded form the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear... Evil crystallized in unjust social structures... cannot be the basis of hope for a better future."

Pope Francis speaks out against an "education that would tranquilize the poor, making them tame and harmless." He has invited liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican and the word is out that he will canonize Archbishop Romero. A different kind of papacy? Surely different from the past two popes; much more like Pope John XXIII.

When it comes to issues of women, Pope Francis has much to learn (including how women were leaders in the early church). But I think he is capable of learning. On homosexuality, he has uttered a telling line, "Who am I to judge?" that certainly distances him from the previous two popes. On issues of abortion, at least he has spoken to the need to care about the women involved.

Pope Francis is not perfect -- none of us are --but he is an ally to all those seeking a world of justice and therefore peace.

____________________________________
[1] George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church(New York: Basic Books, 2013), page 61