Everyone seems to have his own special version of Pope Francis. Liberals have declared him a crusader for social justice, especially regarding his comments about global inequality. Conservatives fear he just might be a commie.
To briefly recap, Pope Francis has hit two hot buttons: He has questioned the efficacy of “unfettered” free markets and has encouraged de-emphasizing the church’s positions on such divisive issues as gays and abortion.
The latter message, while loving and refreshing, is more complex than an “I’m OK, You’re OK” platitude. He never proposes changing church teachings but merely suggests that the church should be open to all. You can’t minister to people if you won’t let them in the door. And no one follows a wagging finger.
“Frequently we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators,” Pope Francis writes. “But the church is not a tollhouse; it is ... a place for everyone, with all their problems.”
He also makes frequent reference to the unborn, but in the context of a throwaway culture that acts as though certain people don’t exist or can be easily discarded, as in the unborn or the elderly.
The message relating to the financial world similarly targeted the collateral human damage of “unfettered” markets. This is by-the-book Christianity, hardly the moorings of heresy. Yet, these Christian sentiments have sent some conservatives reeling to the fainting couch.
Upon reading the pope’s words about greed and inequality, Rush Limbaugh threw down the word “Marxist” like an overcooked rib-eye. The pontiff’s words, said the man of many words, was “just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”
Now seems a good time to step back and consider what so often eludes us in our rush to pontificate: Context, context, context.
Both Karl Marx and Pope Francis may have critiqued our idolatry of money as creating an “economy of exclusion and inequality,” as Francis described the global economic system in his “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel). But Marx was making an economic statement and Francis was making a theological one. Christianity is based on Christ, while Marxism advocates abolition of religion and acceptance of atheism. One receives grace and performs acts of charity; the other abjures grace and systematizes penury.
Next comes Adam Shaw, news editor for FoxNews.com and a Catholic, who wrote that the pope is like Obama — the worst invective a good conservative can hurl this side of “You’re a tool of Satan!”
“Just like President Obama loved apologizing for America, Pope Francis likes to apologize for the Catholic Church, thinking that the church is at its best when it is passive and not offending anyone’s sensibilities,” wrote Shaw. Both men, he implies, “pander to enemies,” and are “professional grievance mongers.” And so on.
Pray, where does one see passivity in Pope Francis? The man is an activist, a street worker, a foot washer and evangelizer. There’s nothing passive or pandering about him. And it would appear that Francis is quite willing to offend sensibilities.
It is useful to remember that Jesus wasn’t only a carpenter’s son but a radical who turned the tables on the status quo. Likewise Francis — a Christian right down to his sensible black leather shoes, the better to walk the walk and sneak out at night to minister to Rome’s homeless.
What set off conservatives was the pope’s criticism of “trickle-down” economic theory that places absolute faith in markets to be humane and fair. Conservatives argue correctly that capitalism has done more to raise millions from poverty than any other system. And they well remember the fusion of Marxism and Christianity called “liberation theology” that seeks to redistribute wealth.
But the pope never mentions redistribution. He is challenging our idolatry of money and obsession with things (I confess!), a cultural fascination that distracts us from the needy. What is the successor to St. Peter supposed to do when he sees so much suffering even in free-market societies? Quote Ayn Rand?
In a final contextual note, Francis is the pope, not the president. Like Jiminy Cricket, he is urging people to let their conscience be their guide. No one, Christian or otherwise, can escape the mirror he holds up, his eyes doubtless twinkling in anticipation of his next moonlight adventure, searching for souls in need.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.