On September 3, 2015, the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) published a new resource entitled A Church Seeking Justice: The Challenge of Pope Francis to the Church in Canada. Since his election as Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father «has brought an immediacy and specificity to Catholic social teaching that has made it a strong mark of his pontificate thus far,» wrote the Episcopal Commission in its text, which outlines the freshness and urgency with which Pope Francis is calling us to act for justice and offers reflection questions tailored to our Canadian context.
1. A few days after the conclave that saw him elected as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis met with the thousands of journalists who had gathered in Rome and told them the story of his choice of the name Francis. He related how he was seated next to his good friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes in the Sistine Chapel as the votes were being tallied, and when the votes reached two thirds, Cardinal Hummes embraced him and said: “Don’t forget the poor!” Pope Francis related: “Those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi… who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man… How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” (Audience with media representatives, March 16, 2013.)
2. Pope Francis has more than lived up to Cardinal Hummes’s word of advice. Not only has he not forgotten the poor, he has reminded the rest of us almost daily of God’s undying concern for those trapped in poverty, prisoners, refugees, the unemployed, and for many others on the margins and peripheries of society. Our first Pope from the Global South, Pope Francis’s way of applying Gospel teaching to daily living was forged in the cauldron of the slums in Buenos Aires. There he cultivated a pastoral approach to people characterized by listening and presence, simplicity and solidarity, proclaiming a Gospel of joy, and walking with “el pueblo fiel de Dios,” the faithful people of God, with their needs.
Now as Pope, he has inspired and challenged us with his personal example, and perhaps even wearied us a bit with his persistence in addressing – and asking that we address – issues of justice and peace. He has brought an immediacy and specificity to Catholic social teaching that has made it a strong mark of his pontificate thus far. Hence it has seemed important for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to reflect on the challenge which Pope Francis is presenting to us, and in a particular way, to initiate a discussion on how his teaching in this area is challenging us here in Canada.
|Jesus identified himself with the poor: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”(Mt 25:40.) It is on this love for the poor that we shall be judged.|
3. Pope Francis understands the Church’s social teaching – about those in poverty or afflicted by other forms of suffering, about economic injustice, and about war and peace – as rising directly out of the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ. He consistently and strongly sets his reflections on justice and mercy within a framework of faithfulness to Christ..
Jesus not only reached out to those in need throughout his ministry, he also identified himself in a direct and immediate way with those who were on the peripheries, who were vulnerable or in need. “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40; cf. Mt 25:31-46). Out of love, God in Christ makes himself poor; the Incarnation and the cross are God’s embrace of poverty in order to embrace us in our need. Pope Francis calls this turn to the poor in love God’s “first mercy.” This, in turn, shapes what God asks of us, what it means for us to put on the mind of Christ. Outreach to the peripheries is a vital part of the proclamation of the Gospel. Furthermore, Pope Francis tells us that the poor, in their difficulties, “know the suffering Christ,” and he encourages us to find the suffering Christ in them. In addition to lending our voice to their causes and entering into relationship with them, we are also to learn from them, “to listen to them ... and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” (Evangelii Gaudium [henceforth EG] 198.)
4. This call for a direct, personal relationship with the poor, summons the Church both to acts of charity and to work for justice, which Pope Francis understands as bound together, and not to be separated. He challenges our practice of giving by saying that the world needs something more from us than a few sporadic acts of generosity. He calls us to promote the integral development of the poor, working for access to education, health care, employment with a just wage, and on another level, working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty, yet without overlooking the small daily acts of solidarity which meet real needs of those we encounter. Above all, he asks that we not water down the Gospel message, which is so clear and direct, simple and eloquent. By his words and his actions, Jesus summons us forcefully to humble and generous service, to justice and mercy towards the poor. Pope Francis asks us: “Why cloud something so clear?” (EG 194).
5. The poor are not a general category, but real human beings with specific needs, and Pope Francis has been effective at making us see the human face of others in their suffering. When he ate with Palestinian refugees on his visit to the Holy Land, the press releases and news stories gave their names and told their stories. In Brazil, he went to those living in favelas, listened to their problems and identified their struggles. He has drawn attention to the plight of the homeless in Rome by meeting and dining with them, and having showers installed for them at St. Peter’s Square. To a group of students, he said: “Look, you can’t speak of poverty without having experience with the poor,” and went on to say: “You can’t speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn’t exist. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.” In his World Youth Day message for 2014 he summoned us, saying, “Let us go out to meet them, look into their eyes and listen to them. The poor provide us with a concrete opportunity to encounter Christ himself, and to touch his suffering flesh.”
6. By pointing to real people and specific situations, Pope Francis highlights the urgency of the present moment, and invites an energetic and emotional response to counter the “globalization of indifference” which has developed. “We are living in a time of crisis ... men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste’.” (General audience, June 5, 2013.) If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, he asks, why is that not news, how can we allow people to be thrown aside as if they were trash? How can we stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? The urgency is not only at a personal level but at a structural one. Pope Francis speaks of social and economic trends and tendencies which, “unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse” (EG 51). He echoes Pope Saint John Paul II’s assessment in Laborem Exercens that “there is something wrong,” deeply wrong, about our societal priorities, our economic and financial structures, our understanding of the human person. (Address to the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation, May 25, 2013.) The moment has arrived, he says repeatedly, to face all of this, to name it well, and to do something about it.
22. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that “economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole” (EG 206). Decisions made in one locale have impacts elsewhere; all nations share responsibility for addressing major global challenges.
23. In continuity with Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis has challenged dominant economic assumptions, especially in the West, introducing Gospel values into economic discourse. While competition and free markets are celebrated in our economic system, “the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest” result in many being “excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape” (EG 53).
It is assumed that economic growth “will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” but this unquestioned assumption reflects a “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system” (EG 54). The worship of money, a “dictatorship of an economy lacking a truly human purpose,” reduces people to their role as consumers, perpetrates exclusion and denies the primacy of the human person (EG 55). Whatever “stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market” (EG 56).
24. The economics of exclusion, isolation and poverty create a “throw-away culture” that “does so much harm to our world. Children are discarded, young people are discarded because they do not have work, and the elderly are discarded with the pretext to maintain a ‘balanced’ economic system, at the center of which is money, not the human person. We are all called to oppose this poisonous throw-away culture!” Christians, together with all people of good will, “are called to build with patience a different society, more hospitable, more human, more inclusive, which has no need to discard one who is weak in body and in mind, but a society that measures its ‘pace’ precisely on these persons.”
25. Pope Francis’s observations on human dignity and justice reflects the Church’s traditional emphasis on a “preferential option for the poor” and its recognition of the dignity of human work in God’s plan for creation. All economic policies and systems should be shaped by the inherent dignity of each person, created in the image of God, and the pursuit of the common good; this is not simply a question of economics but also of ethics.
Justice, fairness and respect for every human being demand that we “find ways by which all may benefit from the fruits of the earth.” (Message for World Day of Peace, January 1, 2014.) A fundamental principle of the Church’s social teaching is the “universal destination of all goods.” All should have “fair access to those essential and primary goods which every person needs and to which he and she has a right.” While some successes have been achieved in reducing poverty, “the majority of the men and women of our time still continue to experience daily insecurity, often with dramatic consequences,” while the chasm between the wealthy and those without resources continues to grow. Unbridled consumerism and inordinate consumption, combined with inequality, “proves doubly damaging to the social fabric” (EG 60).
26. Financial reform based on ethical considerations invites a “generous solidarity,” where money serves, not rules, and where those with abundant resources intentionally “help, protect and serve the poor” (EG 58). Pope Francis speaks of “a non-ideological ethics” that could bring about “a more humane social order” (EG 57), where the dignity of each person and the promotion of the common good would shape all economic decision-making (EG 203). (...)
28. Pope Francis has stressed the urgency of economic reform in our day, indicating that it is the work of us all. He asks God for “more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world” (EG 205). The state has a vital role in confronting unjust social structures, promoting an ethical vision of our common life, and fostering public discourse on the common good. The Church too, particularly the laity, has a role in this great task, working ecumenically and with other groups serving the common good wherever possible.
29. Working for the common good extends beyond communities and national borders. In his message for World Food Day in 2014, Pope Francis notes that to defeat hunger, we need a new paradigm for development policies, a rethinking of our international laws regarding production and trade of agricultural products; we need “a change in the way of understanding work, economic objectives and activity, food production and the protection of the environment”; and we need “a new kind of cooperation” involving states, international institutions, organizations of civil society, and communities of believers if we are to build a genuine future of peace. To all, he asks: “How long will we continue to defend systems of production and consumption which exclude most of the world’s population even from the crumbs which fall from the tables of the rich?” (Message for World Food Day, October 16, 2014.) The time has come, the moment has arrived, for a new way of living together on this earth.
|Four African bishops participated in our study session in Rougemont in August 2015 on Economic Democracy. From left to right : Bishop Joseph Sama, of Nouna; Bishop Justin Kientega, of Ouahigouya; Bishop Joachim Ouedraogo, of Koudougou – all of Burkina Faso; Bishop Pierre-Célestin Tshitoko Mamba, of Luebo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Note that the next session of study in Rougemont will be held in English Oct 17-26, 2015.)|
32. Pope Francis, like his predecessors, is placing the joyful and transforming message of the Gospel before us, and unfolding how the Gospel shows us a way forward, where we as individuals and communities can face the challenges of the day in a way which is deeply human and filled with hope.
l In a world where human beings are often tossed aside, discarded, pushed to the margins, he has spoken with passion and a sense of urgency about the beauty and dignity of the human person, emphasizing that true humanity is found when we build direct and personal relationships with our brothers and sisters in greatest need, learning to walk together in solidarity and friendship.
l Faced with problems on a global scale which threaten to overwhelm us, the Holy Father has summoned us to challenge apathy with empathy, global indifference with a culture of encounter, complacency with an intelligent commitment to justice and the common good.
l Witnessing the short-term horrors and long-term devastation of war, he has reminded us that while violence begets violence, it is listening and dialogue, encounter and forgiveness that open a way towards reconciliation, living together in a future with peace.
l Reading the signs of the times, Pope Francis has been tireless in saying there is something deeply wrong with economic structures and market principles which leave billions of people living in poverty, calling each and all of us to creatively imagine a different way of structuring our common life, such that the human person, our common well-being, and care for the world in which we live have primacy of place in our economic and political decisions.
33. Canada is a great nation, in many respects among the most blessed on the planet. Still, as we listen to the words of Pope Francis, echoing the words of the Gospel and the long tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, we hear a direct and profound challenge... The well-being (or otherwise) of those on the peripheries of our communities, those who do not share in the abundance and blessing of our society, is an integral sign and indicator of our health as a nation. Public discourse is urgently needed on how we can build a more just, caring and thoughtful society in which all races and cultures can live in peace and harmony, a compassionate and generous society that is commensurate with the munificence our creator has shown Canada.
Furthermore, the Gospel summons us to concerns and needs beyond those of our own nation. Those of other nations that are trapped in war or poverty or injustice are our sisters and brothers too. The Gospel, and our common humanity, call us to look beyond our own borders, with a broad vision, and to put ourselves at the service of a healthier and more just world.
34. Keep in mind that the Gospel calls us to charity and to justice, to attend to the needs of persons near us, and to seek out ways to contribute to the larger structural and societal issues needing to be addressed. You cannot help every person in need, nor address every injustice, but you can foster within yourself a Gospel vision for the world, a world where “mercy and faithfulness have met, justice and peace have embraced” (Ps. 85.10), and put yourself at the service of that broader vision. It is not too late to do so, but Pope Francis implores us that it is urgent, that Jesus is summoning us to it, and that the Holy Spirit will accompany us each step of the way.
The Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops