Time for Clarity

December 17, 2013

Pope Francis, who celebrated his birthday today, has had quite a year since his elevation to pope in March. He has excited many Catholics and other Christians with his simple living, humility, and civil tone. And the media also seems impressed by him, most recently as Time magazine named him the "Person of the Year" (as seen on their cover). Recently, however, some conservative pundits have been attacking Francis as a "Marxist" (which is a favorite derogatory term to throw out with out any definitional grounding). Rush Limbaugh, hardly the bastion of religious authority, led the charge. Here are a few of Francis's statements on economic matters in his The Joy of the Gospel:
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? ... Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. ... One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies.
But what really got Francis in trouble with the ideologies is his criticism of trickle-down economics:
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. ... The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
Criticizing inequality and greed while urging care for the least of these quickly led Limbaugh to condemn Francis for being against capitalism. Yet, Francis rightly critiques immoral economic policies and consequences.

Joining the many voices criticizing Limbaugh, Robert Parham penned an Ethics Daily column that astutely captured the differences between Francis and Limbaugh:
Pope Francis reflects Jesus' special concern about the poor and powerless. He adds to that the recognition that the church – as an institution – has the moral responsibility to critique the dark side of economic systems that accumulate wealth and power at the expense of the least of those among us. He follows the God of justice and mercy, not the false god of money. Limbaugh, on the other hand, serves the golden calf of capitalism. He is simply engaged in idolatry – worship of a false god – and a very dangerous one.
Hopefully people will put scriptural ideas ahead of politics.

As Francis continues to shake-up the Catholic Church with his tone and deeds, he also changed part of the power structure yesterday. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a conservative cultural warrior who has been critical of the new pope, was demoted as Francis did reconfirm Burke for the Congregation for Bishops. This significant move shows Francis is serious about hoping to change the tone of the Vatican. I analyzed the rhetoric of Burke (as he excommunicated people) in a study in the Atlantic Journal of Communication and I found his use of pastoral power troubling. Hopefully Time magazine's designation and other media coverage of Francis will help highlight key biblical ideas much needed in our society where too often voices like Limbaugh and Burke dominate.