What Amy Coney Barrett Missed in Pope Francis’ “Fratelli Tutti”

The Catholic Church returned to national focus over the last month. During that period, two distinct versions of Catholicism have taken center stage.

The first was the Republican, pre-Vatican II Catholicism of Judge Amy Coney Barrett who was interviewed for a lifetime position on the bench of the nation’s Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

The second version of Catholicism displayed last month was the post-Vatican II form of Pope Francis who pointedly issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”) exactly one month to the day before our country’s general election on November 3rd.

Let’s take a look at both forms of Catholicism for purposes of highlighting aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical that many commentators have overlooked and that Judge Barrett explicitly rejects.

Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism

Judge Coney Barrett’s form of Catholicism is the one which (thanks to a pair of reactionary, restorationist popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI) most non-Catholics (even 55 years after the Second Vatican Council) still identify with the church of Rome. It comes off as a weird, backward-looking cult mirrored in Catholic organizations like Opus Dei and the People of Praise fundamentalists long embraced by the SCOTUS nominee.

This version of Catholicism insists that men are the heads of households, and that women are their husband’s “handmaids.” Its spiritual practices reflect nostalgia for Latin Masses and ostentatious clerical costuming. The practices centralize specifically Catholic customs like abstention from meat on Fridays, reciting the rosary, and rejecting the salvific value of Protestant denominations and, of course, non-Christian religions. In its latest incarnation, this type of Catholicism goes so far as to preach a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel celebrated by white American evangelicals.     

However, Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism goes even further. As a dyed in the wool Trump supporter, hers represents a particularly Republican understanding. It focuses on reproductive issues. This means that despite the Church’s pedophilic scandals, it continues to grant to discredited celibate males the moral authority to pronounce on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Under some versions, it would also refuse communion to divorcees. (Of course, none of these concerns are addressed anywhere in the Bible).

Meanwhile, as a Republican supporter of President Trump, the faith of the Supreme Court nominee allows her to endorse the extreme nationalism reflected in Trump’s MAGA preoccupations. This entails underwriting anti-immigrant policies including refugee concentration camps, baby jails and separation of families at our southern border. It rejects Black Lives Matter and the African American community’s call for reparations while valuing blue lives as more important than the victims of police violence. It supports U.S. wars, increased military spending, torture, extra-judicial executions, and capital punishment. It denies anthropogenic climate change. Its model of God’s Kingdom is an economic technocracy, where the country is run “like a business.” Hence, it supports privatized, for-profit health care. Its overall economic approach is top-down, since it believes that the wealthy rather than the poor deserve subsidies, bailouts and outright welfare on the disproven theory that such government largesse might eventually trickle down to the less deserving.

Pope Francis’ Catholicism

All of Judge Coney Barrett’s specifically Republican understandings of Catholicism are not only directly contradicted by Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti; they also ignore the Church’s long history of social justice instruction that stretches back to at least 1891 and Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change”).

Even more, Coney Barrett’s restorationist version of Catholicism directly contradicts the teachings of Vatican II which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In a sense, then, her People of Praise understanding represents what has traditionally been classified as “heretical” belief.

With all of this in mind, consider the teachings of Fratelli Tutti on the essence of Christianity, its relationship to other world religions including Islam, and the position it takes on immigration, capitalism, populism, violence, war, capital punishment, and abortion. (All references below are to the encyclicals numbered paragraphs.)

Then imagine how different Ms. Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing responses might have been – and their effect on national consciousness – had she embraced the official positions of the Church with which she so insistently claims to identify, but whose authoritative teachings she and other Republicans evidently reject. As delineated in Fratelli Tutti, those teachings address:

  • The Essence of Christianity: Pope Francis finds the essence of Christian faith captured in Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” to which the pontiff devotes an entire chapter entitled “A Stranger on the Road.” In Jesus’ story, a non-believer rescues a victim of violence who has been ignored by religious professionals. The rescuing Samaritan is a humanist, Francis says, who recognizes that everyone is his neighbor (86). That recognition represents the heart of Christian faith.
  • Christianity and Islam: In fact, according to Pope Francis, all the great religions of the world properly understood acknowledge this truth. Francis makes this point in the final chapter of Fratelli Tutti, which he entitles “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.” Moreover, throughout the encyclical, the Pope goes out of his way to underscore this point precisely about Islam. He does so by repeatedly referencing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb when they met in Abu Dhabi in 2019 (5, 136, 192, 285). Their joint declaration affirmed that all human beings are brothers and sisters with the same rights, duties, and dignity (5).
  • Immigration: That dignity along with accompanying rights and duties belong to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers (37-41). Borders are of secondary importance in the face of human need (99, 121, 125). We must never forget that immigrants’ needs are often generated by not only by their own unrealistic expectations, but also by wars, persecution, natural catastrophes, drug traffickers, human traffickers, coyotes, loss of culture, dangers of their journeys, and separation from children (38). As citizens of a world commons, immigrants deserve a new home even when they are simply seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families (36).
  • Immigration Reform: Indispensable steps in response to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers include: (a) increasing and simplifying the granting of visas, (b) adopting programs of individual and community sponsorship, (c) opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees, (d) providing immigrants with suitable and dignified housing, (e) guaranteeing personal security for them and access to basic services, (f) insuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents, (g) affording equitable access to the justice system, (h) creating the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive, (i) offering freedom of movement and the possibility of employment, (j) protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education, (k) providing for programs of temporary guardianship or shelter, (l) guaranteeing religious freedom, (m) promoting integration into society, (n) supporting the reuniting of families, (o) preparing local communities for the process of integration (p).
  • Capitalism: Yes, the world belongs to everyone – but to the poor primarily. The right to private property is not absolute or inviolable. It can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of common ownership. Its purpose is to serve the common good (120). If anyone lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it’s because another more powerful or dishonest person has stolen it. Put otherwise, the world’s poor are victims of robbery no less than the one saved by the Good Samaritan (119).
  • Populism: In today’s world populist politicians address such victimhood by presenting themselves as populists. Unhealthy populism appeals to the lowest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. It vilifies rather than helps society’s most marginalized. Genuine populism is guided by a clear vision of human dignity and the common good. It starts from addressing the needs of the least powerful (159, 167, 188, 193, 194, 215, 235).
  • Violence:  Ignoring the poor inevitably leads to violence (219). For instance, disrespecting the rights of indigenous people is itself violent (220). Those whose rights and dignity have been violated should not simply roll over before their oppressors. They have to strenuously, but non-violently defend themselves (241). This means that in dealing with injustices committed on both sides of a given conflict, we must avoid false equivalency. Violence perpetrated by the state using its structures and power is far worse than that of groups resisting excessive use of official power (253). Religious violence comes from misinterpretation of traditional texts. But it is also connected to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, and oppression (283).
  • Reparations: Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, denying, relativizing, or concealing the injustices of exploiters (250). The Shoah must never be forgotten (247). The same is true of the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as those of the slave trade, other persecutions, or today’s ethnic slaughters (248). “For God’s sake!” the pope exclaims, we cannot simply turn history’s page. “For God’s sake, No!” (249). Impunity offends the spirit of forgiveness itself (241, 252). In fact, true forgiveness demands that criminals at the highest-level answer for their crimes (241).
  • War: Given the destructiveness of modern weaponry, the only viable policy option is “War Never Again” (258). Nuclear weapons must be eliminated completely. After all, they are incapable of responding to the challenges of terrorism, cybersecurity, environmental problems, and poverty. The trillions now spent on weapons must be diverted into ending hunger and fostering development. The hard work of diplomacy and dialog informed by considerations of the common good and of international law as outlined in the UN Charter represent the only acceptable means of resolving inevitable international conflicts (262).
  • Capital Punishment: The death penalty is absolutely inadmissible in civilized society; it must be abolished worldwide (263). All Christians are called not only to oppose capital punishment, but to improve conditions in prisons whose point is to reform and reintegrate even the guiltiest of criminals back into human society (265, 269). Hence, even lifetime imprisonment (a concealed form of the death penalty) is abhorrent (268).
  • Abortion: Abortion goes virtually unmentioned in Fratelli Tutti. The closest Pope Francis comes to mentioning it occurs in his first chapter section under the heading “A ‘Throwaway’ world.” There he simply observes how we waste food, disposable products and “useless” people like the unborn and elderly (18).

Conclusion    

The Second Vatican Council’s lead document, Lumen Gentium — its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – affirms that the Pope’s “supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him” and that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given” to his teaching (Lumen Gentium, 25). In other words, Fratelli Tutti is not simply an expression of one man’s opinion. Rather, along with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, it represents the official teaching of the Catholic Church.  

Regardless of what one might think of such top-down declarations of external authority, the fact remains that the encyclical carries far more weight than contradictory interpretations formulated by rich Republican politicians led by President Trump and embraced by his acolytes such as Amy Coney Barrett. In fact, as noted above, there is no more apt juridical term for such uninformed dissent than “heresy.”

Even more to the point, Fratelli Tutti’s affirmation that the world belongs to everyone, that it should be run like a family rather than like a business , that human dignity must be preserved at all costs, that private property must serve the common good, that the poor have been robbed, that reparations must be assessed, and that the supposed sanctity of borders must be subordinated to human welfare, all reaffirm not only the Church’s long-standing social justice tradition, but the very teachings of Jesus himself and of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole.

Imagine if Judge Barrett had been able to make those points at last week’s hearings.  

Laudato Si’: Pope Francis’ UPSETTING (But Hopeful) STORY About Our WORLD

Same Text

In my local faith community – St. Clare’s Catholic Church in Berea, Kentucky, we’re getting ready for Advent. As our seasonal project, we’re proposing a parish-wide discussion of Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

I’ve suggested that we purchase copies of the encyclical for each adult member of our parish, that we centralize it in a special liturgy, and that we present copies of Laudato Si’ to each recipient just as we do the Eucharist each Sunday. The presenter would say something like, “Receive the call of Pope Francis’ to reform your life and save our planet.” And the recipient would respond, “Amen.”

However, as our Peace and Social Justice Committee has discussed such possibilities, some have remarked that the pope’s encyclical is rather long and difficult to read. They’ve predicted that despite having the book in their hands, many parishioners will never get around to reading it.

What we need, my friends have said, is a comprehensive thumbnail sketch of the encyclical’s contents – with some provocative discussion questions.

So in fewer than 2000 words, here’s my stab at that. My summary contends that in Laudato Si’ Pope Francis is telling us a disturbing but hopeful story. In fact, the story’s main point (about the failure of capitalism) is told in all the papal social encyclicals since Leo XIII (1891). But this time the world is listening.

Here’s what Francis says in Laudato Si’:

  • The earth was given to humankind as a whole (93).
  • It belongs to everyone (93, 95, 158).
  • Thus the earth is primarily a Commons (164).
  • The climate itself is a common good (23).

_____

  • Though the Commons by definition cannot be privately owned, the Church has always recognized the right to private property in other spheres (93).
  • However the Church has never understood even this right as absolute or to be exercised primarily for personal gain (93).
  • Instead the right to private property has primarily been considered an administrative responsibility (95, 159).
  • As such it must always be exercised for the common good (129, 156).
  • In fact, “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order” is “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use” (93).
  • So it is immoral that the earth’s resources and wealth be concentrated in the hands of a few (50, 90).

_____

  • The Judeo-Christian tradition unequivocally supports the position that the earth belongs to everyone (66, 67, 71, 76, 93, 95), that human “owners” do not have absolute dominion over possessions (67, 68, 75, 82, 83, 93, 95), that all life forms are loved by God (68, 69, 76, 77, 92, 96), and that extreme wealth inequalities are immoral (70, 71, 71, 90, 95).
  • Jesus endorsed all those beliefs by incarnating God’s presence in a poor worker as the locus of God’s presence par excellence (98, 99).
  • Additionally, the natural world itself, as the “Book of Creation,” represents a source of revelation. It too supports biblical insights that summon humans to ecological responsibility rather than to absolute dominion over nature (85, 86,87, 88).
  • Jesus supported such convictions with his teachings about the universal fatherhood of God (96), with his parables about seeds, soil, plants, flowers, harvest, birds, and weather patterns (97, 100), and with display of his own complete harmony with nature (98).
  • The work of the Church, as a community of Jesus’ followers, is “to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature,” while at the same time protecting humankind from self-destruction (79).

_____

­­­­­

  • Nonetheless at some point in history (“when the Roman Empire was seeking to impose absolute dominion”), the notion of private property became distorted (74).
  • Private property came to mean absolute ownership for personal enrichment without reference to the common good.
  • The notion of private property expanded to include the right of “owners” to do whatever they wished with “their” property including its complete destruction, without regard for “collateral damage” suffered by billions of humans and innumerable life forms excluded from the benefits of the market system (49, 67, 123).
  • Eventually common goods such as seeds, water, and life itself were turned into commodities whose ownership was “privatized” (30, 134).

_____

  • After the Industrial Revolution, the power of “owners” to alter and destroy “their” goods increased dramatically.
  • The steam engine and its successors (including today’s robots and computers) conferred power to alter and even destroy not only what owners considered their belongings, but the Commons in general (including the air, water, wetlands, mountains, non-human lifeforms, “resources” below the earth’s surface, and the climate itself).

_____

  • Free market ideology has played no small part in enabling unregulated technology’s harmful impact on the earth.
  • This ideology includes deep-seated, but often indefensible (109) convictions, for instance that:
    • Human beings enjoy absolute dominion over nature (67).
    • The world is anthropocentric: it revolves around human beings who can treat other life-forms as instruments for their benefit and pleasure (115).
    • Such beliefs are supported in the Bible (67).
    • A technological imperative demands that every advance in technology represents “progress” and therefore must be accepted as inevitable (105).
    • Might makes right and winners are entitled to “take all” (82).
    • Government regulation of the market is always undesirable, even in the face of huge income disparities (60).
    • No action should be taken on climate change in the absence of indisputable proof demonstrating the human origins of unusual climate events (186).
    • Unregulated market forces can solve all problems of environmental destruction and poverty.

______

  • The combination of technological development, market forces, and an enabling “free market” ideology has increasingly conferred on industrialized countries the ability to exploit resources world-wide.
  • As a result, for the past 200 years, these nations have incurred an “ecological debt” vis-a-vis the rest of the world (51).
  • Besides robbing their colonies of valuable resources while often enslaving their people, the industrialized countries have filled the atmosphere with two centuries of climate-changing pollution which most proximately threatens the colonies they exploited (51, 52, 170).
  • As a result, the industrialized powers owe their former colonies debt-repayment (30).
  • Such reparations must at the very least include cancellation of “Third World” debts, transfers of money and of non-polluting technology (52, 172).

_____   

  • Indigenous people have been especially attuned to such inequities and obligations on the parts of their exploiters (146, 179).
  • They have not only experienced colonialism as theft of their resources, they have identified the practices of industrialized capitalism as the rape of the one they (and St. Francis) honor as “Mother Earth” (1).
  • For their part, scientists in the industrialized world have warned humans about the unsustainability of such practices on purely scientific grounds (161).
  • True to the predictions of both indigenous shamans and secular scientists, we have now reached a crisis point (23).
  • Humans must either change their economic paradigm (based on this concept of absolute ownership) or face extinction (23, 61, 181).

_____

  • Many with vested interests in continuing to profit from the earth’s destruction have adopted “obstructionist attitudes, including denial (14, 26).
  • They are more willing to risk the earth’s destruction than to abandon the concept of absolute ownership upon which capitalism-as-we-know-it is based (60).
  • So they mistakenly claim that deregulated markets and technological development will save the day without basic changes in the consumerist lifestyle (109, 110).
  • They also propose risky “solutions” [such as Solar Radiation Management (SRM)] rather than low-tech, common sense responses to problems connected with climate chaos (14).

_____

  • The common sense solutions must on the one hand include acts on the parts of individuals such as “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights. . .” and reducing the use of air conditioning (55, 212).
  • On the other hand, dealing with climate chaos requires action which national governments alone are capable of performing (38, 129).
  • These include weening national populations from dependence on fossil fuels (165) as well as investment in high-speed railways, and renewable energy sources. National governments must also strictly regulate trans-national corporate activity (38).
  • Changing paradigms even includes the submission of national governments to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (53, 173, 174, 175).

(Author’s Note: By the way, if we think the United States with its proud history of independence could never submit its own legislative power to the possibility of being overridden by some international body, we should know that it already has. U.S. membership in the World Trade Organization, the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and those of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) already allow international bodies to nullify U.S. laws such as those protecting our air and water. That is, if such national laws are ruled to interfere with the expected profits of multinational corporations, the laws can be rendered null and void, regardless of what U.S. citizens might think. In other words, there is precedent for U.S. submission to international bodies with binding authority to legislate about environmental deregulation. The pope is merely requesting that the same authority be given an international body tasked with protecting the environment rather than allowing its further degradation.)

  • In summary, the principles guiding necessary changes include the following:
    • The Principle of the Interconnectedness of All Reality: (e.g. 16, 42, 70, etc.).
    • The Principle of the Common Good: “The common good is ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment’.” Laudato Si’ identifies the common good as a “central and unifying principle of social ethics.”(156).
    • The Principle of the Subordination of Private Property: “(T)he first principle of the whole ethical and social order” is “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use” (93).
    • The Principle of the Universal Destination of All Goods: (See immediately above).
    • The Principle of Preferential Option for the Poor: This principle “entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods . . . {T}his option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good” (158). In practice it means guaranteeing the rights of the world’s poor to land, housing, work, education, credit, insurance and access to markets (94).
    • The Principle of Distributive Justice: According to Pope Francis, the common good cannot be served without social peace which in turn “cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated,” he observes, “violence always ensues” (156).
    • The Principle of Subsidiarity: this principle embraces decentralized solutions (144, 157, 179, 196).
    • The Principle of Transparency: Laudato Si’ states that “An assessment of environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views . . . Environmental impact assessment should . . . be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure. . . A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders . . . The local population should have a special place at the table . . . (183).
    • The Precautionary Principle: This principle (as expressed by the Rio Declaration of 1992) states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” which prevent environmental degradation.” Laudato Si’ adds that “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (186).

FOR DISCUSSION

  1. How does the message of Pope Francis’ encyclical make you feel? Hopeful? Discouraged?
  2. In your opinion does the pope step outside the area of “faith and morals” by addressing issues such as climate change and its relationship to capitalism-as-we-know it?
  3. How is climate change a matter of moral concern?
  4. Is the pope correct in subordinating the rights of private property to the common good?
  5. What might that subordination mean in practice?
  6. How is climate change connected with your faith?
  7. What alternatives to capitalism-as-we-know-it can you think of?
  8. What would happen if climate-change deniers applied the pope’s Precautionary Principle to climate change?

Second Thoughts about Pope Bergoglio: A Liberation Pope or Just More Blah, Blah?

Bergoglio-foot-washing

I’m still trying to figure out the new pope, Francis I. Initially, I was very skeptical and even negative about his election. After all he was carrying all that baggage from Argentina’s “dirty war.” And some incidents there made me see Francis as just another right-winger in the tradition of his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Tongue partly planted in cheek, I called for his resignation.

Gradually however, I’ve come to question my rush to judgment. True, the new pope faltered with early missteps regarding women. He seemed to reiterate Benedict XVI’s admonition to U.S. women religious to focus more on the issues of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, rather than on social justice for the poor and electoral politics. He even warned a group of sisters against becoming “spinsters” or “old maids” (depending on the translation) rather than fruitful celibates.

But then he went to that women’s prison on Holy Thursday and drew fire from conservatives for including women among those whose feet he washed that day. I concluded that the jury is still out concerning Francis and women. Like most of us males, he clearly has room to grow.

As I wait for the jury’s verdict, two recent incidents have led me towards a more positive evaluation in the court of my own mind. To begin with, Leonardo Boff, a leading liberation theologian who had been silenced by the Ratzinger-Wojtyla team, surprised me by his own positive assessment. He even identified the new pope as a “field” liberation theologian as opposed to a “desk” theologian. Despite his reservations in the past about liberation theology, Bergoglio, Boff said, was truly committed to the poor. Boff was hopeful that the Argentinian might change the direction of the Vatican policy of suspicion and rejection over the last 30 years towards the “preferential option for the poor” so central in the thought of activists committed to the welfare of the world’s poor majority.

Then a couple of weeks ago, a second occurrence made me think Boff might have a point. The pontiff made some surprisingly critical remarks about capitalism and ethics to a group of new ambassadors to the Vatican.

Here are some excerpts. They are worth quoting at length:

“. . . We must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. . . The financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in . . . the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight . . the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have started a throw-away culture.

This tendency is . . . being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules . . . The will to power and of possession has become limitless.

Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God. Ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance! It is regarded as counterproductive: as something too human, because it relativizes money and power; as a threat, because it rejects manipulation and subjection of people: because ethics leads to God, who is situated outside the categories of the market. God is thought to be unmanageable by these financiers, economists and politicians, God is unmanageable, even dangerous, because he calls man to his full realization and to independence from any kind of slavery. . . I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs” (Homily on Lazarus, 1:6 – PG 48, 992D).

. . . There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. . . Money has to serve, not to rule! The Pope . . . has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them. . . .

The common good should not be simply an extra, simply a conceptual scheme of inferior quality tacked onto political programs. . . . In this way, a new political and economic mindset would arise that would help to transform the absolute dichotomy between the economic and social spheres into a healthy symbiosis. . . .Are you surprised by those words? Here the pope is saying that:

1. The wealth gap between the rich and poor is completely unacceptable.
2. It is caused by unfettered markets which reduce people to consumers subordinate to material production.
3. Free markets are heartless, inhumane and idolatrous.
4. Remedying that problem necessitates government interference in the marketplace.
5. . . . based on an ethics of solidarity taking its lead from the poor and prioritizing human welfare and the common good over untargeted economic growth.
6. Solidarity ethics find their origin in God who calls all humans to liberation from slaveries and idolatries of all kinds.
7. So governments must overcome their reluctance to correct the wealth-concentrating tendencies of free markets,
8. . . . and the attitude which sees ethical and theological concerns as counter-productive when they
prioritize the needs of the poor over the profits of financiers and the moneyed classes.
9. Avoidance of these responsibilities makes governments complicit with the crimes of robbery from the poor who (rather than the rich) are the true owners of the resources of God’s creation.
10. Economics and social justice should not be understood as standing in opposition to one another, but as mutually nourishing.

I find the pope’s words encouraging and quite promising. True, most popes (even J.P.II and Ratzinger) made isolated statements in tune with the comments just quoted. And taken as a body, the social teachings of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) to Vatican II’s “Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965) are progressive enough though they remain the church’s “best kept secret.”

Yet, the words I’ve quoted come from a new pope who (as Boff notes) has demonstrated his concern for the poor in practical ways, and has embodied a preference for simple living, And that might be sufficient reason for hope the pope’s words will define his papacy rather than simply being more papal “blah, blah.”

The jury’s still out.