Pope Francis a rock star among Catholics on inequality, but …

Economic-justice arguments reviving church’s long-held teachings, but women and gays are still left behind

Francis is bringing many younger people back into the fold, but many still criticize positions on women and gays.
Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

When William Lindsey was a theology professor at a Catholic college in the 1980s, he taught about a 1986 pastoral letter written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All.” In it, the bishops called on Catholics to address economic inequality, noting “recent Catholic social thought regards the task of overcoming these patterns of exclusion and powerlessness as a most basic demand of justice.”

Since then, though, “they’ve acted for almost two decades like none of that was said in 1986,” he recently told Al Jazeera. “It’s as though the document stopped existing.”

Economic justice, Lindsey said, was “taken off the table” by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis, though, “seems to be resurrecting a lot of this discourse.”

Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” published on Nov. 24, sparked worldwide attention largely because of its critique of trickle-down theories of economics. Francis contended that these ideologies amount to “a crude and naive 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.”

Lindsey has experienced another kind of exclusion, having been “shoved to the margins,” he said, when his committed relationship with another man became known. While he and his partner are still waiting for his church to “afford us space and respect as a Catholic gay couple,” Lindsey is nonetheless hailing Francis’ re-emphasis on economic inequality in Evangelii Gaudium.

Eugene McCarraher, who teaches humanities at Villanova University, said, “Everyone I know on the Catholic left is pretty cheered by” Francis’ statements on economic justice.

Indeed, many Catholics are using “refreshing” and “breath of fresh air” to describe the new pope’s re-emphasis of Catholic social thought, a tradition dating to the late 19th century. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the first of the social encyclicals, “Rerum Novarum,” written in an era when the effects of industrialization were beginning to be felt, said Father Frank Case, vice president for mission at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

The focus of “Rerum Novarum,” Case said, was on the role of labor and the rights of working people and represented the beginning of the church’s support for collective bargaining, labor unions and other advocacy for workers and the poor.

The pope’s words are resonating with Catholics committed to this tradition of social thought — a tradition that many say had been marginalized under the previous two popes and in the United States, with the rightward turn of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

McCarraher said Francis “is trying to reclaim a certain kind of Catholic social teaching that usually puts the social nature of property above private property or profit.” 

Different tone

While Benedict and John Paul II, Francis’ two immediate predecessors, did not abandon such teaching, McCarraher said, there is a real difference in Francis’ tone and emphasis.

“There’s a certain edginess to his tone,” McCarraher said, in “the very, very clear references he makes to the invisible hand and market processes. These are very overt and sardonic sorts of remarks.”

McCarraher cited Francis’ contrast of the news media coverage of a two-point drop in the stock market with its lack of coverage of the death of a homeless person as an example of that edginess.

Daniel Thelen, a volunteer member of the New Orleans Catholic Worker, one of many similar missions around the world that serve the needy in the spirit of the movement started by Depression-era advocate Dorothy Day, said Francis could have a big impact on young people, whose eyes “are being opened” to “a crisis in our country that is not spoken of enough — the haves and have-nots.”

Thelen said many Catholics committed to social justice were excited about Francis, some “hesitantly” as they wait to make sure actions follow words. But his change in tone represents “enormous promise for the church,” Thelen said.

Still, as Lindsey pointed out, there are other types of inequality and exclusion that some Catholics say the pope has not adequately addressed — particularly unequal treatment of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church and society. He has signaled no change in the church’s official opposition to homosexuality, abortion and birth control and has said the door is “closed” on the question of women’s ordination.

If you keep defining women to be the child bearers and domestic servants of the world, nothing’s going to change.

Sister Joan Chittister

Benedictine nun

Sister Joan Chittister — a Benedictine nun, an influential author and speaker and a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) — said, “As a Catholic, it’s very refreshing to see the Gospel take more precedence in church statements than canon law.”

Still, the LCWR, the leadership organization of American nuns, is under investigation by the Vatican for heresy, a campaign begun under Benedict and that some dissident Catholic scholars have labeled a “new Inquisition.”

Chittister noted that for the past 50 years, the LCWR has taught and led on the same social principles the pope is teaching now.

“If you’re a man and you believe those things, you get elected pope, but if you’re a woman, you get investigated for heresy,” she said.

She described Francis as “humble and simple and pastoral and warm and caring, like Jesus, a man of the poor.” But, she added, according to United Nations statistics, two-thirds of the world’s poor are women.

“I don’t believe anything in this world is going to change, from its corruption to its charism, if you do nothing to equalize the role of women in this world,” Chittister said. “If you keep defining women to be the child bearers and domestic servants of the world, nothing’s going to change.”

‘Driving conservatives batty’

Despite the clear meaning of Francis’ economic critique, American conservatives have leaped to claim Francis as a fellow traveler. McCarraher, who has been critical of the merger of conservative economic and religious thought as “Chrapitalism,” said Francis is “driving conservatives batty.” The conservatives, he added, “pretty much controlled the religious discourse since the 1980s. They’re freaking out at losing control of the narrative.”

McCarraher said he hopes “left-leaning Catholic politicians and intellectuals would take advantage of this situation.” Within the American Catholic hierarchy, though, he said any change would have to be generational, as bishops pass and new ones are appointed in their place.

Case said he and other Jesuits “like this guy very much,” referring to Francis.

“I pray every day,” Case said, “that he lives long enough for the inspiration he has established to filter down deeply into the church.”

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