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Pope Francis and the Joy of Political Homelessness

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Why is Pope Francis striking such deep chords among Americans (not to mention people worldwide) with his daily messages, his candid comments and now with the first major solo teaching document of his short pontificate?

Perhaps because Francis regularly demonstrates by word and deed that to be a Christian, and especially a Catholic, is to be both pro-life and pro-poor – and because the leaders of both of America's major political parties, in embracing one or the other, are guilty of differing but equally disturbing gaps in compassion.

Evangelii Gaudium, the new pope's first “apostolic exhortation,” never mentions a single nation or its leadership. It doesn't have to, for the problems Francis cites are ancient and worldwide. But this document – titled “The Joy of the Gospel” in English – pulls no punches whatever in admonishing humanity that we are all one family and the indispensable key to healing our world is the “new commandment” that Jesus modeled all the way to the cross: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Regardless of press pundits with short memories, Francis is by no means the first pope – or even the first among recent popes – to proclaim and live the message he expounds in great detail in Evangelii Gaudium. (To download a PDF of the exhortation, visit http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents....)

Blessed Pope John Paul II was equally bold in his literary and personal witness, especially before old age slowed him down (though only death silenced his pen). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, though personally more reserved, never backed off in his spoken and written testimony to the Church's “preferential option for the poor” and its defense of the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.

This combination seems unnatural to this nation's elected officials, political operatives and commentators. They're deeply invested in proclaiming that to be pro-life is to be Republican, to be pro-poor is to be Democratic and to be one is to reject the other. Democrats accuse Republicans of pressing their policies at the expense of poor people who already have been born. And Republicans charge Democrats with turning their backs on helpless humans who have been conceived but have yet to be born.

To both parties and their adherents, Pope Francis would reply: Open your eyes.

Conservative U.S. political voices (most notably that of Rush Limbaugh) are bristling at the most publicized (by far) of the new pope's critiques in Evangelii Gaudium. But one needs to read the surrounding material more fully. Here's an extended excerpt (Paragraphs 53 and 54) from Francis' exhortation, with the most prominent sentences cited in press accounts indicated in boldface italics:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. … Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. …

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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

Who cannot look at the mobs that gallop through American stores on the day after Thanksgiving – some of whom even turn to violence in their quest for the best deals – and perceive that, after all, Francis has made a point in this season of “peace and joy”?

As for the well-publicized pair of sentences: Let's set aside the choice of “trickle-down” (guaranteed to irritate conservatives since Ronald Reagan's time) by the document's English translator. Is not the subsequent sentence the heart of the matter? When has Catholic teaching (not to mention the teachings of many Protestants) ever counseled faith in the goodness of humans except to the degree that they submit to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit? And where is the evidence that unquestioning faith in human goodness has ever been justified over any stretch of time?

Some right-wing U.S. politicians are admittedly cruder than others. One can also make a good case that Reagan's faith in “supply-side” economics was based more on naïveté. But though some conservatives welcomed John Paul II's words about the positive aspects of a market economy in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, the soon-to-be-canonized saint did not at all flinch from warning in the same document about the shortcomings of capitalism. Neither does Francis – which explains well why many liberals, especially those who are passionate about social justice, have rejoiced at Francis' words.

But the press accounts of Evangelii Gaudium have severely downplayed or completely ignored this second and final extended excerpt (Paragraphs 213 and 214; boldfaced passages are the author's emphasis):

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offense against the creator of the individual.”

Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations.” It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

Does not the pope here use that favorite of liberal words – “progressive” – in much the same uncomfortable fashion as he used “trickle-down"?

Both parties' views of humanity are distressingly constricted. Liberals discredit their generally sincere concern for the poor and powerless when they exclude groups of people from the very definition of personhood. Conservatives' admirable defense of unborn life likewise proves bitterly hollow when it's combined with stark callousness about the plight of “the least of these” and our common duty – as Americans no less than as human beings – to care for each other when our best efforts to care for ourselves fall short.

Jesus rejected such “either-or” thinking, and so has His Church from the first Pentecost until now. Sadly, we must admit that we also fall victim to the common source of our nation's twin “compassion gaps,” as have every man and woman who have lived or will live. Humans are inclined, and often deliberately fail, to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Selfishness is the very definition of sin!

Instead, Christians are called to be“both-and” people who love each other as fully and completely as did the Lord who saved all humanity upon the cross. It isn't easy. To be equally pro-life and pro-poor in America is to guarantee that one can never truly find a political home. No secular law can ever ensure that people will do what they ought. But there is a path to a better, more joyous life for ourselves and those we touch that no political ideology can provide.

The “joy of the Gospel,” as Pope Francis reminds us in Paragraph 3 of Evangelii Gaudium, is that this path is at hand this Advent and until the end of time:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. ... Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!

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