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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Pope, The Poor, And The Bible–Why Francis Should Return To Catholic Orthodoxy

Pope Francis has made a point of focusing on the plight of the poor, citing Jesus Christ and the Gospels.  Caring for the poor, he says, is one of the fundamental principles of Christianity, and that we neglect them at our peril.  Francis has gone out of his way to bond with the poor, and on his recent trips to Latin America he has visibly shown his concern for their plight.  Argentina is of course the birthplace of Liberation Theology, the movement which combines Marxism and Christian theology and which places social reform and income equalization front and center.  While the Church – especially during the archly anti-Communist reign of John Paul II - has always distanced itself from the movement, Francis has been far more accommodating.  Not only has he raised the issue of poverty, but has been unequivocally critical of capitalism as its principal cause.

Pope Francis


John Paul II attacked Liberation Theology not only because of its Marxist roots, but because of its deviation from the real meaning of the Gospels.  Christ did indeed encourage charitable giving, but because of the benefits accruing to the giver, not the receiver.  His many harsh criticisms of the rich were not against wealth per se but the materialism which diverted attention away from the only goal of life – spiritual salvation.

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In the Parable of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-22) the young man asks Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. Jesus recites the Ten Commandments, but the man is not satisfied. I have kept all these laws, he says; so what do I still lack?.  Jesus replies:

“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

If he gives away his possessions, Jesus counsels, the young man will have treasure in heaven.  There is no mention of benefits to the poor.

In the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) Jesus admonishes a wealthy man who can only think of his material well-being: “Take care!”, he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Then Jesus tells the fool a parable about a man who is only concerned about his stores:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Again, the issue is not using one’s wealth for secular ends, but divesting oneself of them to achieve the state of simplicity and focus required to contemplate God.

Christ’s words to the poor as spoken in the same vein.  Your poverty is nothing in itself, for the real and only rewards in life are those to come:

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets....(Luke 6:20-26)

In other words, John Paul II was critical of Liberation Theology not because its ends – social justice and promoting the cause of the poor – were not laudable; but because it diverted attention away from Christ’s teaching – salvation.

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Francis has chosen to adopt the liberal interpretation of Liberation Theology whose advocates said that the intent of wealth distribution – helping the poor – was at least as important as the spiritual salvation of the giver.  By so doing he has become a more secular Pope than any before him.  To the consternation of many Catholics, he has ignored his true calling – ministering to the spiritual needs of the world – and become entangled in 21st Century economics and politics.  Unlike past popes like Julius II (The Warrior Pope) who had imperial power and who used it in the great wars of the late Middle Ages, Francis is playing politics academically.  By bringing the papacy down to the level of electoral politics (income inequality, concentration of wealth, entitlement vs. opportunity, etc.) he has lowered himself.

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Protestants have no problem with the orthodoxy of Christ’s teaching.  All is a matter of grace and faith; and the only purpose in life is to gain God’s grace and through it eternal salvation. One’s personal and individual relationship with Jesus Christ in an aura of grace and redemption is all that matters.  Good works are irrelevant.  Only faith matters in the final accounting.

Both the Catholic Church and most fundamentalist Protestant denominations have placed the alleviation of poverty low down on their list of priorities. What matters most is the avoidance of sin, and churches have a very good idea what sin is. 

When the Religious Right became a force in American electoral politics, few candidates could reject or ignore their demands for a return to Christian values.  The issues of abortion and reproductive rights, homosexuality and gay marriage, and prayer in the schools became visible and potent symbols of American fundamentalism.

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It was logical, therefore, that pastors increasingly linked politics and faith.  It was in their own secular interests to do so.  Performance and advancement, as in any corporation, depended on revenue, expansion, and influence. Ross Douthat writing in the New York Times (5.17.15) writes:

President Obama’s version, delivered when he shared a stage with Putnam at Georgetown University, was nuanced but similar in thrust: “Despite great caring and concern,” the president remarked, when churches pick “the defining issue” that’s “really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians,” fighting poverty is often seen as merely “nice to have” compared to “an issue like abortion.”

However poverty, no matter how much a civic, secular concern, does not resonate with the fundamentalist faithful.  Abortion has become the ideal issue for churches because Roe vs. Wade represents an egregious overstepping of public authority in an issue which is at the very core of religious belief – the value of an unborn child.  Homosexuality is no less of a contentious and vital issue for churches because the practice has been roundly censured in the Bible and called ‘an abomination’.  Not only that, Christ’s teachings and those Paul and the Apostles clearly identify the family as the center of both spiritual and secular life. 

Not only has poverty been government’s responsibility for so long that few churches consider concerted action necessary or required; but that it is peripheral to much doctrinal teaching.  Redemption and salvation, most Protestants believe, is up to Jesus Christ, and only prayer and personal resurrection (being born again) have any meaning in life. It is up to the individual to reform himself, find God, and live a life of obedience.  He is not responsible for the spiritual or secular welfare of others.

The secular press does nothing but raise issues of income inequality, the depredations of capitalism, the One Percent, and the denial of opportunity to the poor and the marginalized.  Most Americans would say that they have had quite enough political hysteria over these issues to last well past 2016. Why shouldn’t the Vatican and Protestant churches focus on what they know best – the Bible, theology, faith and morals, and Christian tradition?  As any parishioner knows from Sunday sermons, the world is a sinful place and we are all sinners.

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So is there are role for churches in addressing poverty? Yes, but not by replicating the social programs of the State.  Pastors can turn their attention away from both hot political issues like abortion and homosexuality and social activism, and return to an insistence on moral values that have characterized every successful civilization since Greece and Rome – honesty, respect, courage, discipline, honor, and compassion. In so doing they will harmonize their secular interests with more spiritual ones. 

Pope Francis can return to a more orthodox reading of the Bible and commend those who give charitably for the sake of their souls.  The poor will benefit even though the intent of giving was not directed to them.

Perhaps what bothers orthodox Catholics most is Pope Francis’ cultivation of a rock star image.  He is becoming no different than the Dalai Lama who is thrilled to be photographed with entertainers and athletes.  Every time Francis invites an Oprah Winfrey or a Matt Damon to Rome, he is diminishing his authority and respect.

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Catholics believe that Francis is the ordained representative of Jesus Christ on earth, one in a long line which began with Peter. When the Pope speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals, he is infallible, because he is speaking the words of God.  Given such a unique, remarkable, and spiritually unparalleled position in the world, what is he doing with Oprah Winfrey?  Neither his admonitions about poverty and wealth inequalities nor his teachings on faith and salvation can be taken seriously.

It is time for Francis to go back inside the Vatican and pray for our souls.

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