Late last month, the Holy Father Pope Francis issued the first major academic work of his pontificate solely of his own authorship. Many liberal and conservative commentators alike have seized on this Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (or The Joy of the Gospel), to support the notion that under the leadership of Francis, the Catholic Church is more fully embracing elements of liberalism and socialism.
The controversy surrounding the pope’s Exhortation, in which leading conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh have taken exception to Francis’s criticism of greed and unfettered capitalism, has obfuscated the true essence of pope’s message – that the Christian Church and the culture we live in is in need of great and dramatic reform in order to bring the joy of the Gospels to all of humanity, not only the poor but especially the rich.
A few stipulations. First, despite the works’ accessibility and the relatively simple language that the pope chose to write in, Evangelii Gadium is a lengthy and weighty piece. No treatment here could ever tease out each aspect of its message, nor am I qualified to do so. Second, as a practicing Episcopalian and leader in my diocese, I am all too familiar with a denomination’s willingness to practice liberal politics with the Gospels serving as a proto-Marxist tract. When clergy people justify their political beliefs from a moral perch high in their pulpits, they are somewhat insulated from secular political criticism. This is why the dividing line between faith and politics is held with such sacred regard in our republic. It is sometimes difficult for parishioners to distinguish between politics and faith when a church makes a conscious decision to engage in secular politics. It is my humble opinion, however, that Pope Francis does not prescribe a formula for social change, as many of my brothers and sisters in leadership of the mainline protestant churches do, but instead asks Christians to consider a revitalization of the Church from which many good things emanate. Buried in his Exhortation and well beyond the cacophony of debate that has sprung up in the media are some glimmers of truth which conservatives should celebrate. Finally, it is my contention that most of what the public knows about Evangelii Gadium comes not from the text itself, but from the media controversy that surrounds it.
The current echo chamber of political commentary creates a tendency for large, serious works like Evangelii Gadium to be cherry-picked by columnists and broadcast journalists whose media dictate short, digestible pieces which can be read or viewed on a smartphone during the morning commute. In these media, there is hardly any extra column space or air time in which to pursue a more weighty analysis which, truthfully, is more the domain of academic writing and debate anyhow. I first noted this phenomenon in 2004 with the release of Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack which focused on the Bush White House during the run up to the war in Iraq. The first chapter makes it easy to draw the conclusion that President Bush was hell-bent on going to war with Iraq, regardless of the facts on the ground. Most journalists and commentators seemed content to stop reading there, for it served to reinforce a dominant media narrative that Bush, Cheney and the cabinet were war mongers. The media ran with it. However, later chapters of the book displayed a much more even-handed look at the factors that led the president to his ultimate decision.
Another example of this phenomenon may be at work in regard to Evangelii Gadium. The first sections of the second chapter have garnered most of the media attention. The most notable section follows:
54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
Media types looking for a straw man, rejoice! A pope who conservative elements of the Church may not quite trust, given his association with liberation theology movements in Argentina, now attacks capitalism and even used the term of “trickle-down” in his criticism. Everyone here has something to chew on here, from liberals looking for moral cover in their ever-present push to expand the socialist state to conservatives always on the prowl for anyone in an ivory tower they can deem to be “out of touch” with reality. The pope continues:
56. 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. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power.
What a gift! Class warfare and an attack on financial speculation? I won’t take the bait, like so many of my fellow conservatives have, and point out that the Church sits atop a massive, global real estate and investment empire and has clearly benefited from the workings of capitalism. What I will do is ask you to read earlier parts of the pope’s work and think about whether or not as a conservative (if you are one) you should be upset about this piece, or challenged by its call to action.
Conservatives might stop to consider that the following criticism of the modern world is a wonderful indictment of liberal government which, with a few notable exceptions, has dominated the governments of Europe and the United States since the end of World War II and has failed to take care of the poor, sick, and needy despite trillions of dollars spent and year-over-year budget increases:
52. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries.
Increasing the number of people on food stamps should not be taken as an indicator of the government’s success in caring for the poor of the world – the number never decreases! True socialists see these programs as a means of economic redistribution which, if put in those terms, most Americans would most likely oppose. However, most Americans are caring people and find it difficult to oppose food stamps or other forms of public assistance when a human face is put on the problem. While it might make us “feel good” to support various government programs aimed at helping the poor, do they really attack the root cause of the problem? Is the “fear and desperation” alleviated by yet another bureaucratic program, or does it live well beyond a government’s reach deep within the soul? Is Pope Francis misguided in his thought that the capitalist system is to blame? Or as analysts, are we presuming to live in the pope’s mind and interpreting his words well beyond our license and his intended meaning?
Let us consider the larger message the pope wishes Christians to consider. Earlier in the Exhortation, he asks the Church to reawaken itself to the joy of the Gospel message and to reform its missionary worldview, asking Christians to be more of the world in their work:
24. An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.
As a Christian, I could not agree more completely with Francis’s message. As a conservative, I have to ask: Do the politicians we elect and send to Washington, Sacramento, Albany and Lansing really have the “smell of the sheep” on them? By in large I think the answer to that question is no, for regardless of party the politicians who become part of the system which, to date, has not cured any of the ills that plague society cannot effectively claim to work on our behalf. One need not look beyond the current health insurance crisis for a greater disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.
Finally, it is important to end on an uplifting note and for me to make a feeble attempt at reconciling Francis’s powerful message to my conservative political beliefs. Considering the ripple effect of a good deed, for which the Christian Church is responsible for many – from the indelible mark a parochial education leaves on a child, to the care of a soup kitchen, the intellectual challenges of a Bible study, to the beauty and mystery of worship – we are left with this from the pope:
22. God’s word is unpredictable in its power. The Gospel speaks of a seed which, once sown, grows by itself, even as the farmer sleeps (Mk 4:26-29). The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.
In that unruly “freedom of the word,” I think there is room for both the success and daring of capitalism and the humility and concern for others that can only come from recognizing the place of the Divine in our world, for both enormous wealth and the welfare which is made possible by it, for both greed that generates wealth and the generosity of the human spirit which tempers it.