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From the way Pope Francis discusses sex and money in his first major papal pronouncement, you can tell a lot about his plans for Catholicism. He wants Church leaders to scold people less for their sexual arrangements. He thinks capitalism in its present, lightly regulated state is a “new tyranny”.
The Pope’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium(“Joy of the Gospel”), was released this week. He calls it a set of guidelines for a “new phase of evangelisation”. The election in March of Francis, a charismatic priest serving the working class of Buenos Aires, was a milestone in this phase.
For all the Church’s recent difficulties, its leaders believe it has vast potential for growth. They are right. The consumerism and materialism of the past decades have wrought economic marvels, but they have left a spiritual void – what Francis calls “the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart”. And yet every time the Church clashes with hedonism, it loses. So, at one level, Francis is making his self-abnegating religion more marketable in this consumerist age. He has figured out that people would rather hear about the joys of salvation than the wages of sin. “An evangeliser,” he writes, “must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.”
This shift should not be mistaken for all-out modernisation. On fundamental questions – which include sex and money – the Pope is not revising the Church’s beliefs, although he may change dramatically its attitude towards power.
The cornerstone of the Pope’s thinking is that the Church is a community of sinners, subject to “self-absorption, complacency and selfishness, to say nothing of the concupiscence which preys upon us all”. Francis is harder on hypocrites within the church than without. His tone is occasionally bilious and angry. His fellow clergymen are pretentious. They write lousy homilies. They are cliquish and snobby, which leaves people feeling unwelcome. “The Eucharist,” he writes, “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Those who follow the Catholic Church primarily to root against its sexual teachings will find little to please them in this document, which lays out a number of non-negotiable points. No women priests, no reconsideration of abortion and (by implication) no gay marriage. The Pope is not at odds with the way previous popes understood these things. He is just a bit more savvy about how, on television and online, “certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning”.
On economic matters, the Pope’s thinking is radical, albeit somewhat less radical than it looks. There are passages in Gaudium that sound like the manifesto of some mid-20th-century revolutionary front. (“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognise that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property.”) But the Gospels have always been an uneasy match with free markets. At heart, the Pope is urging believers to pay more attention to the poor. Nothing could be more mainstream than that. The poor, and Christians’ duty to them, are all over the Gospels. Latin American theology since the 1960s has stressed that theme tirelessly. “For the Church,” Francis writes, “the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one.”
These ideas will be harder for the Pope to apply in more prosperous parts of the world, where today there are, broadly speaking, two ways to help the poor. You can help them directly, by giving alms or tutoring or ladling soup. The help this affords is genuine, but it takes the heat off the wider system, centred in the west, which the Pope attacks as a tyranny. The other way to help is indirectly, through politics. In advanced European and North American democracies, however, “the poor” tend not to speak for themselves. They are represented by the more “compassionate” of parties of the relatively wealthy, whose “compassion” often consists of pillaging the other party’s voters to compensate their own. The poor wind up an afterthought.
In less-developed political societies, such as, historically, those of Latin America, it is easier to tell rich from poor. And a lot more politically charged, too. Either the first New World Pope understands European and North American politics less well than his predecessors or he has revealed a historic shift in the Church’s culture. The Vatican may still be in Rome, but the heart of the church is on other continents. After centuries of projecting its attentions outward, Catholic Europe now finds itself on the periphery. It is missionary territory.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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