Thursday, December 12, 2013


There is a tremendous amount of upset, it seems, amid certain quarters of the Catholic Church, with Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  Most of it is curious, to say the least.  We have the spectacle of TV “reporters” on Catholic channels (or “commentators” like Rush Limbaugh) questioning the degree of the “binding nature” of this document because there are statements in it about economics and re-distribution of wealth on behalf of the poor.  They are convinced that the Pope knows nothing about economics and that there is no reason to take him seriously when he speaks about systemic change.

They may or may not be right in their critique of his analysis, but in focusing on the points that they do, they miss the forest (deliberately?) in order to wring their hands at a given tree.  This is tragic, but perhaps it is understandable.  And there certainly is precedent.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae) stated that the justification for capital punishment was “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” some of the same pundits pounced on the words “rare” and “practically,” arguing that this meant there is no definitive condemnation of capital punishment, and so death penalty-happy States like Texas and Florida (and yes, Alabama) are perfectly fine morally.  Of course, this ignores the overall intent of the Catechism’s statement and the lived practice of Pope John Paul himself.  But that is another matter…

By claiming that Pope Francis’ rejection of the principle of “trickle-down economics” is mistaken, it is too simple a step for others today to reject the principle of the poor as our brothers and sisters.  And this is the “forest” that Pope Francis is trying to put into focus. 

Needless to say, the Holy Father has the principles of the Bible, the words of Jesus, and the teaching of the Church Fathers as the continuous trajectory from which his thought proceeds.  So why (and how) can some Catholics find so much to reject?

It seems to me that when some Catholics take moral stands in a rather sanguine way (even if they are intensely involved emotionally) it is too often when it offers a chance to point a finger at another person.  In condemning abortion, for example, it is something someone else does; we would never do such a thing.  When capital punishment is defended, it is because it is something someone else has done; we haven’t committed that horrible crime.

But Pope Francis’ words are now a critique of us.  We live in the most privileged society, economically speaking, in world history.  We also live in what is possibly the most self-absorbed society in human history, as well.  And there is a vast inequality of life-style between us and much of the rest of the world, in terms of standard of living, of educational opportunity, of access to medical care…  In short, too many people in the world live in conditions that degrade human dignity.

Should all nations be democracies, just like America?  No.  Should all nations have the standard of living of America?  No.  Are all countries governed by leaders whose integrity is uncorrupted?  No. 

But should world hunger and disease exist on the level that it does?  No, not if we Catholics were to take seriously the dogma of the Body of Christ, and the words of Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The Pope is saying that the wealthy have too much wealth spend on self, and that the poor are too regularly ignored or rejected for the sake of the wealthy keeping their wealth for their personal pleasure. 

Worse, we not only take for granted our “birthright” of wealth, but we waste much of what we have as our food.  Is it an accident that we are one of the most obese nations?  How much food is regularly thrown away at restaurants because they over-size portions? 

One does think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus…

And when the wealthy and privileged (aka, much of the Catholic Church in the United States) hear the Pope’s challenges, we become uncomfortable and search for reasons to justify rejecting his message.  I said “we” deliberately because I feel the challenge and I know that he convicts me in my own life-style and lack of commitment to be a brother to the poor.

Where do we start?  One way is to make a pledge to eliminate, insofar as is possible, waste of food in our own lives.  It requires discipline (and time) to do this—to buy only so much fresh food, for example, as can easily be eaten in a day or two.  Italian grandmothers know this instinctively:  they shop every day at the markets, buy what’s fresh, and then prepare and eat it.  How often do we “stock up” and then throw away?

I have seen the level of poverty in which some people live, in Haiti and rural Mexico (and in some parts of rural Alabama).  Can I eliminate it?  No.  But can it motivate me to live more responsibly and generously, so that I waste less and have more to give—to agencies like Catholic Relief Services that work to ease the suffering of the poor?  Yes I can. 

I could probably cut my life-style and annual income in half and still live royally compared with much of the world.  How much do I want to reduce, for the sake of generosity?  And:  can I do this with evangelical Gospel joy?  This is the challenge of the economic portion of Evangelii Gaudium that some folks don’t want to face.

Are we guilty of perpetuating a "throw-away culture," a "culture of waste" while others in our world starve? Here is Pope Francis' prayer:

O God, you entrusted to us the fruits of all creation so that we might care for the earth and be nourished with its bounty.
You sent us your Son to share our very flesh and blood and to teach us your Law of Love.
Through His death and resurrection, we have been formed into one human family.
Jesus showed great concern for those who had no food – even transforming five loaves and two fish into a banquet that served five thousand and many more.
We come before you, O God, conscious of our faults and failures, but full of hope, to share food with all members in this global family.
Through your wisdom, inspire leaders of government and of business, as well as all the world’s citizens, to find just, and charitable solutions to end hunger by assuring that all people enjoy the right to food.

Thus we pray, O God, that when we present ourselves for Divine Judgment, we can proclaim ourselves as “One Human Family” with “Food for All”. Amen.

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