04 December 2013

Pope Francis and Human Solidarity

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“I will wash the feet of others.” No pope had ever done this. On Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013, reflecting a ritual that Jesus washed the apostles' feet before his death, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 criminal offenders. That included two women, one a Serbian Muslim (Osservatore Romano via AFP/Getty Images) “I will wash the feet of others.” No pope had ever done this. On Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013, reflecting a ritual that Jesus washed the apostles' feet before his death, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 criminal offenders. That included two women, one a Serbian Muslim (Osservatore Romano via AFP/Getty Images) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/pope-francis-acts-of-humility/2013/07/25/4e7db41c-f49e-11e2-aa2e-4088616498b4_gallery.mwo4ml#photo=1

A law journal asked me to contribute an article on Muslim and Christian understandings of human rights, so I was thinking about recent sources. Then like most of you, I heard about the Pope’s first “apostolic exhortation” last week – mostly because Francis, as the media portrayed it, was so critical of capitalism.

So, hopeful and curious about the first document authored by the new pope, I decided to read it (about 224 pages in the official pdf version).

I was not disappointed. I found several passages in the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that were helpful for my paper and, more importantly, as a Protestant Christian, I was genuinely inspired by its content and strengthened in my own faith.

But before I get into the document, let me share some of my past to help you make better sense of this blog.


My Catholic experiences in Algeria

Of my sixteen years in the Arab world I spent the first nine years in Algeria (1978-87). I served as assistant pastor for the first four years in the only English-speaking Protestant church, the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, and then five years in the French-speaking Eglise Protestante d’Algérie.

For the first eight years I lived as a single person in community with other internationals related to the church. In fact, my lifestyle was very similar to that of my Catholic friends, priests and consecrated brothers and sisters of various religious orders. We all lived simply, and I would support myself financially through occasional jobs translating or interpreting from French to English or vice versa. In community it was share and share alike and I didn’t need any regular income.

Just a five minutes’ walk from the Anglican church where I first lived was the White Fathers’ Diocesan Center – arguably the best Arabic language school in North Africa at the time. I first went through their 3-year course in the Algerian Arabic dialect and then attended classes with a Lebanese priest who taught modern standard Arabic to Algerian government cadres who had found themselves severely off-balance with the ongoing “Arabization” campaign imposed by the state. Like me (I grew up in France), their education had all been in French. In that setting, Father Mousali was amazingly adept at inculcating Arabic grammar and vocabulary using the newspaper and a love for the language at the same time.

Besides the fact that I made many friends among my Catholic colleagues along the way, two events stand out. The first was my official ordination into the ministry in 1982. I was associated with a small congregational denomination, which, amazingly, approved an ecumenical setting for the ceremony in Algiers. It lasted just under two hours at the Anglican church, with a variety of other clergy participating, including the Catholic archbishop Henri Tessier, who at one point offered a spontaneous prayer of blessing in French, English and Arabic.

Four years later, he attended my wedding, along with Cardinal Duval and a good two hundred other people, Algerian and internationals. Through our common efforts in the Bible Society and in other venues, these exceptional leaders had become true friends.

I have to say, I learned a great deal about spirituality and new depths of the Christian tradition from my Catholic friends in Algeria.

And yes, I’ve been teaching as an adjunct at a Catholic university for the past seven years – another good experience!


Pope Francis and “The Joy of the Gospel”

This document is no official pronouncement on theology or church law, like an encyclical or an apostolic constitution. It’s a pastoral letter by the pope addressed to his worldwide parish, in this case specifically exhorting Catholics to live out their faith so as to draw non-Christians to the love of Jesus that is for everyone. The Church as a whole should be focused primarily on its mission:


“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation . . . As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion’” (p. 25).


The reformation the Church that he proposes is entirely aligned with this objective – making the Church, from its leaders down to each faithful, truly follow its Master, who lived only for others, and in particular, the poor and disenfranchised. Instead of turning inward, it must turn outward.

Like many previous such papal pronouncements, this one was occasioned by a Synod of Bishops in October 2012 on the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” So his “exhortation” follows up on the theme of the “new evangelization.” But clearly, Pope Francis feels this theme is providential. You feel it in the passion of his writing:


“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?"

“Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.”

“A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others. Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary” (pp. 196, 198, 203).


Plainly, Francis believes Jesus is for everybody. But nowhere does he say that embracing Jesus means people become Catholics or Christians. Though of course that remains an option for those who so desire, his concept of evangelism is much broader and more comprehensive. Two concepts help bring this idea into focus. The first is the framework Jesus used for his own teaching – the Kingdom of God:


“The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society” (p. 142).


In a way reminiscent of much Islamic discourse today, Pope Francis contends that religion cannot be restricted to the private sphere or be exclusively about people’s welfare in the hereafter. Rather, “the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being” (p. 144). He explains:


“Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society … And authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that [sic] we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice’” (Benedict XVI, p. 145).


The second concept that informs his view of evangelization is that of Christ’s incarnation. God who sent his Son as a human being in order to redeem the human race continues through his Holy Spirit this work of redemption both in the lives of individuals and in societies writ large. Each human being was created in God’s own image and “is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives” (p. 204). For this reason God cares too about the social, economic and political structures that bind people together. But it starts with treating our neighbor as if she were Christ himself:


“God’s word teaches us that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’” (Mat. 7:2).


God’s infinite care for every human being is what also animates his desire to see justice implemented on all levels of human society. Perhaps the word “solidarity” best captures this aspect of Catholic social teaching, and in particular the message that Pope Francis aims to communicate here.


Pope Francis and human solidarity

We already read this phrase above, “The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’” This theme must also be placed alongside another Catholic doctrine, the preferential option for the poor. Here is one helpful explanation of it:


“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salva­tion came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread. When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18).


It is precisely at this juncture that you can begin to situate the pope’s thoughts on economic issues. This is where human solidarity comes into play:


“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual” (pp. 149-50).


It is this divine call to solidarity that sparked this oft-quoted passage of the document:


“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (p. 45).


This passage too was often cited in the news – loving one’s neighbor means looking at changing unjust economic structures:


“In this context, 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. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” (p. 46).


Francis is clear that he’s not interested in this or that political ideology. Unsurprisingly, an article in the Economist commented on this document under this title, "Left, Right, Left, Left." The truth is, he’s a lot harder to categorize than that.

My only concern in this blog is to point out his robust message of social justice based on the inalienable human dignity of each person by virtue of creation. At the very least, you can sense this kind of compassion fueling Nicholas Kristof’s recent column. What is more, following the example of Jesus will lead us to boldly stake our solidarity with the poorest of the poor:


“It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others” (p. 164).


Reminiscing about my Catholic friends who truly lived in solidarity with the poor in Algeria only reinforces the challenge I feel from Pope Francis’ exhortation. How can I – how can we, no matter what our religious affiliation might be – do more “to leave this world somehow better than we found it”?