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Pope Francis and Catholicism's long ignored progressive tradition


The wrath of the biblical prophets was often directed at those who enjoyed the inequality of their riches while ignoring the needs of the vulnerable at the other end of the economic scale. One of the earliest of such prophets was Amos, who condemned those who oppress the poor and crush the needy. According to biblical scholar Walter Bruggeman, Amos was protesting against the “self-indulgent economy of the urban elite.” In statements made both before and after he became Pope, it is clear that Pope Francis sees the prophetic tradition as integral to his understanding of what it means to be a good pastor of the flock.

In a published inter-religious dialogue with Rabbi Abraham Skorka (also of Argentina) in 2010, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, lamented that although many people are aware of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of communism, not enough are aware of its condemnation of economic liberalism, and particularly what he called “the wild economic liberalism we see today.” The future Pope Francis was calling attention to a long established, but also long ignored dimension of Catholic social teaching. This dimension continues to be marginalized notwithstanding the fact that even Pope Benedict continued that tradition.

In a 2009 encyclical, Pope Benedict arguably took dead aim at free-market fundamentalism, or wild economic liberalism, when he said that the “conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from influences of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.” This papal observation about the evils of an amoral economy was accompanied by a lament about the downsizing of social security systems and a call for the strengthening of trade unions. Yet these are hardly the teachings that are associated with Pope Benedict, or the Catholic Church in general, something that it seems Pope Francis is determined to change.

By what he now says and does as Pope, and by reminding the faithful, and the world, that a truly adequate ethical perspective is about a lot more than questions concerning human sexuality, one might say that Pope Francis is engaged in a form of internal liberation theology — liberating his church from what he regards as an obsession with some issues at the expense of  others that feature prominently in the biblical tradition.  In his recently published Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis addresses questions like the idolatry of money and the market, and the resultant injustices and inequalities that threaten human well-being and the environment. The rich are called upon to share their wealth, in an appeal for a vision that transcends both the limits of charity and the limits of the welfare state and deals with the structural causes of inequality.

Perhaps it is not unreasonable to hope that Pope Francis may yet create, or recreate, the kind of ecumenical window of opportunity that saw many ecumenical coalitions for justice in the sixties and seventies, before the culture wars of the next few decades fragmented such efforts. During the days of the Occupy Movement, I recall the Anglican Archbishop of York saying, with respect to the encampment at St. Paul’s Cathedral and what he referred to as the scandalously unfair society created by excesses in the financial sector, that it was “hard to imagine a more powerful way of CEOs telling someone they are of little value than to pay them one third of 1% of your salary.”

Growing inequality is the elephant in the room that many have not wanted to name. Having Pope Francis name it in the way he has is a sign of hope for those who have never taken their eye off this ball, and for those on the religious left who have labored for too long in the hegemonic shadow of a media paradigm about faith and politics that has left economic justice out of the picture.

Bill Blaikie is a United Church Minister.  He is currently an adjunct professor at the United Centre for Theological Studies at the University of Winnipeg and is a Broadbent Fellow.  He was a Member of Parliament from 1979 to 2008, and an MLA and Minister of Conservation in Manitoba from 2009 to 2011.

Photo: Catholic Church (England, Wales). Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.