The New Pope is Serious About Social Justice

This morning, he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. From this day forward, he is history’s first Pope Francis (not Francis I).

Francis was born in Argentina to Italian immigrants. Because of his parents’ nationality, some would deflate claims that this is the first non-European pope in a millennium. The vast, vast majority of popes have been European, but Francis is thoroughly Argentinian. He was born in Buenos Aires and attended seminary there. He became the rector of his seminary and later the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He has ministered to the people of Argentina for four decades, most recently as President of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, a post to which his fellow Argentines elected him by a wide margin. So let’s dispense with the notion that this man is really European. Jorge Bergoglio is as Italian as John F. Kennedy was Irish.

His dedication to the church was not unnoticed. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001. When John Paul II died in 2005, Bergoglio was reportedly a close contender until he literally plead ”almost in tears” with the cardinals not to vote for him. He has been a respected and energetic prince of the church this past decade.

Why does it matter to evangelical protestants? Well, here are a few good reasons. More importantly, Catholics and Evangelicals agree on much and are often – increasingly – of one voice in the political world. The legal and political fight in the United States and abroad has centered on competing visions of the well-ordered society.  On this front, along with many others, there is much to admire in Pope Francis. He has demonstrated his willingness to partake in the church’s ancient role of teaching – and preaching to – the state. No doubt he will be an influential voice in the years to come – a voice the poor and the unborn, truly the least of these.

Perhaps the one thing on which the secular left and the Christian right agree is that the church has a responsibility to the poor. I doubt you can read a news story from the secular American press without learning that Francis is committed to “social justice,” a term that has become a weapon in the hands of those who would prefer the Catholic church lighten up on the whole eternal-truth schtick and focus instead on its mercy ministries. But the Catholic church is both unequivocal and absolutely right about this: social justice, or love of neighbor, is a natural outgrowth of our salvation in Christ. As the Vatican has it:

It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine.

Still, Jesus commands us to care for the least among us. Cardinal Bergoglio took that charge very seriously, even equating extreme poverty with murder and terrorism in the pantheon of human rights violations. He is certainly right that great inequalities in wealth are endemic of a corroded and diseased culture. But Pope Francis does not limit his diagnosis to material things – this is the central error of those who find Christianity to be a close cousin of Marxism. Francis knows that human society depends on the spiritual health of its members. And spiritual health is keyed to human nature and God’s design, an inescapable and non-evolving reality that defies modernity.

Some parts of that reality bristle more than others. The Catholic Church teaches that God’s design is for man and woman to marry and bear children. Francis is a vociferous opponent of any deviation from that plan. In his zealous and comprehensive opposition to what he has called the “culture of death,” the new pope aptly describes our dependence on the risen Jesus: “We cannot embrace the culture of life if we do not put our roots in Jesus, if we are not united to Him as a branch to the trunk of the vine.”  He opposes abortion, contraceptive use, and gay marriage, calling this last a “scheme to destroy God’s plan.” He has said that adoption by gay couples is “discrimination against children.” This particular stance garnered a public rebuke from Argentina’s socialist president.

We have come to expect a caricature. The sternly conservative septuagenarian priest should be icy and single-minded. And yet, the same year that he was elevated to Cardinal, Bergoglio kissed and washed the feet of end-stage AIDS patients at a hospice facility. Relinquishing his private car and driver, this senior prelate takes the bus to get around. And he is not afraid to ruffle the feathers of his own establishment. He harshly criticized priests who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers, calling them “today’s hypocrites” and adding that they “separate the people of God from salvation.” Here we have an obvious disagreement with Francis’s theology, but that should not stop us from admiring his conviction.

Francis is a true believer: his love for others is a direct function of his love for Jesus which is a direct function of Jesus’s love for us. Francis affirms the Vatican’s teachings on social justice; his concern for the poor is a far cry from the sentimentalism that normally bombards us. “The unjust distribution of goods persists,” he remarked in 2007, “creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.” This is a man whose concept of human flourishing informs every aspect of his thought and his life.

I won’t wade in to the morass of whether one who accepts the entirety of Roman Catholic teaching can truly be saved. Instead, let us pray for Francis and his congregation as we contemplate the words of our Savior:

So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pgepps pgepps

    Good observations. Thanks!

    I’d been expecting a surprise–I got one. Though, the more I hear, the less I think I should have been surprised.

  • http://michaelrjones.wordpress.com Michael

    Hey, Lee: Thanks for linking to my post about why the election of the pope matters to evangelicals! I appreciate it!

  • Rachana

    Lee, I think is a great post. I’ll have to agree with John here that you get this better than even a lot Catholics.

    I think, at the end of the day, Catholics and evangelicals Protestants can work together on some of the momentous issues of our time — without papering over our doctrinal and theological differences, important as those are.

    But, at the same time, the Catholic Church does have a rich Social Teaching tradition that cannot be put into the secular political categories, as much as the world were prefer such things to be easily compartmentalized as “conservative” or “progressive.” At the end of the day, we’d like to simply think that we’re…Catholic.

    I think you hit it right on the nail when you said: “The Catholic church is both unequivocal and absolutely right about this: social justice, or love of neighbor, is a natural outgrowth of our salvation in Christ.” And with that, the Church would always reference that to the true good of man — the whole man — and in light of the Imago Dei, rather than the incomplete and partial solutions that secular ideologies offer.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Mr. Epps – I hope you got a surprise after you read the headline of this post, too.

    Michael – Derek shared your post with us CaPC writers. I liked it but didn’t want to take up much space repeating it. So thank YOU for making it easier for me to include it!

    Rachana – thanks for your kind words. I look forward to the next time we find ourselves on a bus to the grand canyon and can debate the weightier matters of theology.

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