In light of Pope Francis being in the news with his address to Congress, his critique(s) of capitalism, and his comments regarding refugees and immigrants. It brings my mind theological constructs, economic theories, and other socio-political issues – as well as the reactions from both believers and non-believers.
From a theoretical economic standpoint, the fierce defense of “free market capitalism” by certain factions in the USA shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how capitalism is supposed to work. Yes there is to be a hands off approach, however this is not absolute. The government plays an important role in capitalism; they provide laws and regulations to keep the market place healthy by ensuring there are no monopolies, and that there is no exploitation of the worker. The former is covered by the “Godfather” of capitalism, Adam Smith – in the Wealth of Nations he makes it very clear that no one organization should have enough influence or power to have complete control over an industry. Competition is a key component of capitalism, exposed not just by Smith but by other capitalist stalwarts like Milton Friedman, and a part of the role of government is to foster this. In the case of the latter, Smith makes it clear that the worker should be rewarded and compensated well for doing a good job. Ingenuity and effort are to be duly rewarded. We do not see that as much as we should in North America; we either see wage freezes layoffs, or we have unions who make it so incompetent employees make the same or more than others.
Both of these are highly evident in North America. In Canada there is a distinct lack of competition (leading to monopolies like the LCBO), and at least in Ottawa there is an issue of some places keeping everyone on the same wage scale, regardless of if they do a good job or not (like it or not, the public service does have this reputation somewhat). In the US, there’s a distinct lack of competition, and also a distinct lack of giving due compensation to workers – a living wage. This ties into some of the Pope speaks of when it comes to immigration, as there are many workers in the States who work for peanuts due to being illegal immigrants. As much as what some may complain about how “they are taking jobs away from others”, many of those jobs I’m not sure Americans would be willing to do, especially at the wages provided.
To some, conversations on the economy and immigrants may seem out of place. There’s a contingent of Catholics who are upset that in his address to those in the US Congress because Pope Francis made no overt references to abortion or same-sex marriage. There are others who see the lack of overt references to mean a condoning of those things. In both of those cases, and also several media outlets, there is a misunderstanding of the over-arching narrative with the papacy of Pope Francis – something he has referenced a few times now. The main ideology that Pope Francis is fighting against (and those who have talked to me on Facebook or offline have heard me use this expression countless times) is the “disposable culture” that we live in.
Take for instance, Pope Francis’ critique (which is consistent with Catholic teaching since the time of the Gospels) on the USA’s fascination with capitalism. Pope Francis is not condemning the open market, nor the owning of possessions. What he is condemning is the bastardized version of capitalism practiced in the USA and certain other parts of the world. I’m certain if he came to Canada, he would have equally harsh words for our bastardized socialist/capitalist hybrid economic system we have here.
Pope Francis is advocating what from a theological standpoint is called “Gospel Poverty”, which is a precept often misunderstood. People see and hear the word “poverty” and they immediately get scared, thinking it means being destitute and having nothing of substance, or perhaps thinking those on the streets or underdeveloped areas in the world. Gospel Poverty is none of those, it is not denying oneself material possessions outright or utilizing your finances for leisure activities, nor does it forbid being industrious. It is the precept that the pursuit of money and material possessions should not rule over us, nor should it dictate how we live our lives. Living a life of selfishness versus selflessness. That money, fame, and the overwhelming desire to “have stuff” becomes our master, and the end result is that we lose sight of the dignity of man, along with money becoming our idol. It’s the idea of living moderately, and yes, sometimes willingly sacrificing something by not living a “life of accumulation”. Now, there are some who are indeed called to a radical form of Gospel Poverty, to give up everything they have literally and metaphorically. Those who do so take solemn vows as being consecrated religious though, and not everyone is called to that vocation. But this is the radical call, not the call the rest of us Christians have – the call we have is still important, but not as radical.
That said, I would take up the argument that the message of Gospel Poverty *is* radical in today’s societal culture. Because no one wants deliberate hardships, people want what they want when they want it. People feel validated with things and money, and success if measured by those things. No longer do we as a society measure things based on how much we give or how much we sacrifice for others, we measure our success based on what we obtain materially. In that we live in a disposable culture, we shouldn’t be surprised this is the case. Nor should we be surprised that elements of Christianity have decided to embrace the pursuit of things, as throughout history we unfortunately seen some Christians adopt practices of the world and attempt to contort them to Christianity, despite it being clearly incompatible. It’s been in the news lately due to Jon Oliver, the “prosperity gospel” message being preached within North America. This is the belief that you are blessed in the eyes of God, and will be rewarded with Earthly things accordingly. That if you pray hard enough, read enough, tithe enough, contribute enough, follow their precepts, you will be prosperous in a temporal fashion.
Let me be very clear and absolute on this; there is nothing “gospel” about the prosperity gospel. Those who advocate for it are wolves in sheep clothing, leading people away to be slaughtered. There is nothing remotely gospel about their message; it is the antithesis of the fundamental Gospel message. The call to Gospel Poverty is *very* clear in Scripture with one passage off the top of my head speaking about how it’s easier to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Because the rich man is concerned with his riches! How to gain it, how to keep it, how to grow it, how to not lose what is theirs. There is *nothing* in Scripture to support the prosperity gospel message. Nothing. The prosperity gospel message should be called what it really is; heresy. If there are any proponents of the prosperity gospel on my Facebook, I challenge you here and now to showcase where in Scripture that validates your message and belief. You will find your message has no weight nor bearing, whereas my position is based on Scripture, alongside 2000+ years of Tradition.
This isn’t to say the Bible condemns making money and being industrious, those are not inherently evil things. We see several passages advocating those things. Look at Proverbs 31, where the writer asks the question so many men have asked since the dawn of man; a noble woman, who can find one? They can be difficult to find, it took me many moons to find Stephanie after all. Proverbs 31 explicitly speaks about how much a man needs to praise and appreciate if he has a good woman, especially if she is industrious (among other things). It is the gluttony, the excess, that is condemned. A fantastic book on this topic is “Happy are you poor”, which goes into the Gospel Poverty message further. It explains the freedom of not just living that way, but how we are all called to do so, utilizing extensive Scripture references and the mystical theology found within Catholicism.
Economics is just one portion of this though. After seeing some of the reactions of other Catholics online, I’m under the impression that some had certain expectations regarding the content of the address at the US Congress, and when these expectations were not met they are now concerned and upset. They wanted firm and hardline stances laid out on same-sex marriage and abortion, to name too issues they wanted to see addressed. I also think that some of these people were already unhappy with the frequency of Pope Francis speaking out on those issues, and this simply compounded their existing concerns/fears.
Sometimes you need a jackhammer, sometimes you need a rock hammer (the hammer used in the Shawshank Redemption). It depends on what rocks are present, and what you wish to do – break through a wall in three seconds, or do so in less than twenty years? In this specific instance, it’s possible that this was neither the time nor the place to discuss same-sex marriage and the slaughter of the unborn. By speaking on the topics he did, it could be he wants to make liberals more receptive to his other messages. This is something that should be readily obvious to all.
For the Catholics who wanted more on abortion, doctor assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage, there’s still a twofold message. The first is that there are other issues that are pressing, not just those three. His Holiness has mention that before, this could be his way of doing so again. The second message is that we are called to evangelize, and if we feel this strongly about some of these topics we could act on those emotions in a constructive manner – rather than focusing on what was and wasn’t said. Have our own words be spoken. For those who take the perceived “silence” as condoning, this certainly isn’t the case; even a cursory search shows that Pope Francis has remained consistent with orthodox Catholic teaching.
And that right there is something all people who think they know what’s going on should make no mistake; Pope Francis has commented on abortion and same-sex marriage before. The media has refused to highlight these things because they seek to paint him as a “liberal Pope”. Laughably, some “traditional” Catholics are buying that narrative – not necessarily due to the media, but due to the Pope not aligning with their perceptions of what he “should” be talking about.
Remember that in addition to being Pope, he’s a South American, so take into account the culture and issues that he has seen there. He also took on the name of Francis of Assisi, the foremost practitioner of the mendicant movement. Although he may be a Jesuit, he obviously has an appreciation of Franciscan spirituality. When reflecting on these sensibilities, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a lot of focus on the poor and the lost. We also shouldn’t be surprised he highlights certain messages in certain situations; remember the strong words he had on abortion when talking to medical professionals? I’d rather he do that here in North America; if the doctors begin to realize the holocaust of abortion then there will be no one to carry them out.
Ultimately, the address Pope Francis did in the US Congress ties into the narrative of his papacy. Abortion and doctor assisted suicide will be spoken of, have been spoken of, and will be spoken of in the future – those too tie into the narrative. As mentioned before, the narrative is that we live in a disposable culture; where the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the unborn, the imprisoned, the Earth itself – they are all threatened in so many different ways. In a sense, he is continuing the legacy of the prophet Pope Paul VI through the transcendent encyclical Humanae Vitae. Pope Francis seeks to highlight this and fight this, and he does so through his words and actions. In his address he did this for the poor, the Earth, the imprisoned and for the family unit. In other addresses he will speak of abortion and same-sex marriage.
For now, people should temper the expectations on hearing specifics. Set your expectations that Pope Francis *will* speak about the disposable culture, and may not speak about the facets of it that are closest to your heart. He is continuing the legacy of the prophet Pope Paul VI, and as someone whom is impacted greatly by society’s zeal to terminate those who they deem unworthy or disposable via doctor assisted suicide, I am thrilled with his work. He is seeking to protect people like me, and I am eternally grateful.
May the Lord continue to bless and guide the Holy Father!