Pope Francis released his first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. There was so much excitement online that the Internet almost collapsed.
Father James Martin, the popular Jesuit writer, got a head-start on reading the document and posted this message on Twitter Tuesday morning: “I’ve never read a papal document that was so exciting, surprising, provocative, invigorating and hopeful.”
There are so many themes throughout the letter that demand our reflection and response, but in this column, I’d like to point out a few passages that show how, for Pope Francis, a concern for the poor and vulnerable is an essential element of spreading the Gospel. As disciples, our commitment to protecting life at all stages and working to change systemic injustices is not marginal or optional. He writes in paragraph 201 (emphasis mine here and throughout):
“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice….”
Starting in paragraph 52, Pope Francis lays out challenges to evangelization and discipleship today. The headings he uses are, “No to an economy of exclusion,” “No to the new idolatry of money,” “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves,” and “No to the inequality which spawns violence.”
Pope Francis writes on the violence of income inequality, and rejects libertarian economics:
“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.”
Here, Pope Francis is not writing about individual or communal acts of charity, as important as they are. Instead, he is emphasizing the Catholic teaching that governments are responsible for helping to correct social structures that perpetuate injustice:
“The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”
Pope Francis criticizes “trickle-down theories” of economics that assume that the unregulated economy will bring about greater justice in the world. Instead of people serving as cogs in an economy that will naturally take care of everyone, Pope Francis writes we must regulate our economies to assure they promote the good of all.
“Money must serve, not rule. The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you [political leaders] to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.”
Pope Francis also targets social libertarianism. The “me-first” individualism that enables laissez-faire economics also leads to a marginalization of the unborn. He writes in paragraph 213:
“Among the vulnerable for whom the church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless 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.”
Catholicism’s assertion that every single human being is the beautiful creation of God leads the church to a consistent life ethic you just can’t find in any political party today. Pope Francis draws a clear connection between the protection of the poor and the protection of the unborn:
“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 defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence 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 defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.”
Why, for Pope Francis, is working for a more just society such an important part of faith? Because for him, faith draws us out from “narrowness and self-absorption” (paragraph 8), into an encounter with Christ found in our sisters and brothers.
In paragraph 183, he writes:
“An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses.”
In our own journeys of discipleship, may our love for this magnificent planet and our human family grow ever stronger, and may God give us the grace to make the world closer to how He wants it to be.
Mike Jordan Laskey is director of Life and Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden.
For full text of ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ go to www.camdendiocese.org