It is a serious understatement to note that Pope Francis has made more than his share of news during the honeymoon months of his papacy. Mainstream reporters have rushed to cover almost everything this charismatic leader has had to say.
The “almost everything” clause is, however, rather important.
It was news, for example, when the pope said that the church has been unbalanced in its approach to promoting it’s teachings on the sanctity of life, stressing public-square politics over pastoral care. Yes, the word “obsessed” was worthy of big headlines. However, days later, journalists on this side of the Atlantic ignored his ringing words at a global conference focusing on abortion and other family life issues. So some pronouncements on abortion are newsworthy and others are not.
Now, Pope Francis has released an important “apostolic exhortation” — the title is Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) in which, in very popular language, he addresses a wide range of topics, everything from global economics to improving the preaching in local pulpits.
So what is grabbing the headlines? Consider the top of this The Washington Post report:
Pope Francis on Tuesday sharply criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets in a wide-ranging and decidedly populist teaching that revealed how he plans to reshape the Catholic Church.
In his most authoritative writings as pontiff, Francis decried an “idolatry of money” in secular culture and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny.” But he reserved a large part of his critique for what he sees as an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, calling for more local governance and greater inclusiveness — including “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”
The 50,000-word statement is the latest sign that Francis intends to push the church in a new direction.
Viewing the document through a DC Beltway lens, the Post team also jumped — appropriately, I think — on the fact that Pope Francis used a strikingly American term during his discussion of the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism. His content was very similar to similar statements by the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but in this case the style is crucial.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
“Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”
Although Francis has previously raised concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the direct reference to “trickle-down” economics in the English translation of his statement is striking. The phrase has often been used derisively to describe a popular version of conservative economic philosophy that argues that allowing the wealthy to run their businesses unencumbered by regulation or taxation bears economic benefits that lead to more jobs and income for the rest of society. Liberals and Democratic officials have rejected the theory, saying it is contradicted by economic evidence.
This is certainly a very important section of “The Joy of the Gospel.” However, it is very, very interesting to note that the Post article — after the earlier media firestorm about this pope’s words on abortion — completely ignores the strong passage in the new document about abortion and related issues. The passage even, like the “trickle-down” reference, includes a word that can be seen as linked to political and theological battles in America and elsewhere.