Francis’ World

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)
Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at Vatican. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)
Pope Francis rocked the media again last week with the release of Evangelii Gaudium,” (The Joy of the Gospel) an apostolic exhortation laying out his vision for a well-run, joyful church and a more just world. America magazine’s James Martin, SJ, wrote that he was unable to “remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprising, and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.”

New York magazine’s Dan Amira had some fun with the document, publishing a quiz called, “It’s Time to Play ‘Bill de Blasio or the Pope?,’” in which he asks readers to guess if quotes are attributed to Francis or the ultra-liberal, populist mayor-elect of New York.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper wrote that Evangelli Gaudium “was a serendipitous Chanukah gift, that brought joy to the Jewish world.”

If you haven’t read the full text, a whopping 224-page PDF, you should. It’s accessible, inspiring, and thought provoking. The gist of it says that Christian joy can capture the imagination of the world, revitalize the Church, and compel Jesus’ followers to question the idolatry of the free market while caring for the poor and marginalized. It’s that last point that’s causing some consternation and heartburn from certain segments both within and outside the Catholic community.

Mere hours after the exhortation was published, Samuel Gregg of the libertarian Acton Institute, which is managed by a Catholic priest, published a scathing critique, writing at the National Review that “a number of claims made by this document and some of the assumptions underlying those statements are rather questionable.” He challenges the pope’s assertion that true Islam is a religion of peace, and then dives into his main argument, which is to refute Francis’ claim that so-called “trickle-down” economic theories are able to alleviate poverty. Gregg, author of Tea Party Catholic, suggests that Francis doesn’t understand economics well enough to weigh in on the subject.

Then there’s Rush Limbaugh, the irascible right-wing radio host, who suggested Pope Francis is a Marxist. He said that up until Evangelii Gaudium, he admired the pope, though he admitted that he doubted Francis’s sincerity. “But this,” he hissed, was the last straw. “The pope has gone beyond Catholicism here, this is pure political.” Limbaugh, reportedly with a net worth of more than $300 million, said, “this is pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”

Not quite, says Professor Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He acknowledges that “Evangelii Gaudium will surely be a challenge to many around the world, to the powerful, to the rich, to ideologues of every stripe, to Americans, to all Christians, and especially to Catholics.” But he writes that, “It’s not Marxism, Mr. Limbaugh. What Pope Francis offers in Evangelii Gaudiumis pure Christianity.” Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good agrees, and they’re asking Catholics of all stripes to sign a petition refuting Limbaugh’s comments.

The Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan suggested that Pope Francis’ words are challenging for certain elements of American conservativism because they haven’t been challenged by authentic Christian thinking on the economy in several years:

Sorry, Rush, but if you think this critique of capitalism is something dreamed up by the current Pope alone, you know nothing about Catholicism, nothing about John Paul II, and nothing about Christianity. But I guess we knew that already, even though the ditto-heads still believe, like that particularly dim bulb Paul Ryan, that Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ are somehow compatible, when they are, in fact, diametrically opposed in every single respect.

Pope Francis is not deviating from Catholic teaching, and the economy is probably the area where he toes the line most closely with his two predecessors. So why are conservative Christians so alarmed?

I was at an event hosted by Faith in Public Life Tuesday night at which the group’s executive director reminded attendees that the Christian right is an invention of individuals and corporations who sought to co-opt Christianity for their own ends. That is, a bunch of passionate Christians speaking up for the poor hindered unbridled capitalism, held up the pursuit of unimaginable wealth, and generally weren’t good for runaway markets. They called attention to the devastation that is often left behind. So, to distract religious people from challenging messages about the economy, which are essential even with capitalism being the least bad way of doing business, morality and social issues were used to distract and shift the conversation.

Pope Francis is trying to change all that. He’s embraced the poor with his actions. Now, he’s using his words to offer a vision of a society that isn’t governed by greed, but crafted with charity. Evangelii Gaudium shouldn’t inspire smugness on the Catholic left and anxiety on the Catholic right. Rather, it should challenge all of us, regardless of political persuasion, to consider how our own actions live out the Gospel. How our own words advocate for justice. And how to be joyful while living and speaking.