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Pope With a Purpose

Helping the poor has been his life mission. But can he reform the Church?

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The Catholic world got a surprise yesterday: Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, S.J. was on everyone’s short list in 2005 but, at age 76, most commentators assumed he was too old to assume the papal throne, especially after Pope Benedict XVI resigned citing the effects of old age. Then came the second surprise: Bergoglio chose the name Francis, the first time a pope has chosen the name of Catholicism’s favorite saint.

The choice of name makes sense in terms of Bergoglio’s background and is, perhaps, a clue into how he intends to lead the 1.2 billion Catholics spread across the world. Francis embraced voluntary poverty and simplicity. As the world has learned, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the palatial residence his predecessors inhabited, and he dispensed with the chauffeur-driven limousine and took public transportation to his office.

The interest in poverty, however, runs deeper than his personal lifestyle. The Latin American bishops have spent the last fifty years wrestling with one dominant question: What does it mean to exercise a preferential option for the poor? In the U.S., Catholics live in an affluent society and have grown tone-deaf to the essential understanding of the Christian Scriptures: The Gospels are good news for the poor. The Catholic Church in America certainly provides many and varied social services to the poor, but the Church has only incidentally and sporadically questioned the roots of our market economy. In the U.S., even the Catholics have been “Calvinized” over the years. To the extent that religion plays a role in evaluating the economy it is as an add-on, encouraging people to give to charity once they make their millions.

In Latin America, where millions of Catholics go to bed hungry and live in slums, the cause of the poor is not only about providing social services. The Church in Latin America, for historical and cultural reasons, plays a great role is shaping society in foundational ways. The question of providing for the poor in Latin America, and throughout the global South, has been asked at a deeper level, intellectually and practically, than one finds in the affluent West.

Many Latin American theologians in the late 60s and 70s were attracted to “liberation theology,” which started with a Marxist-inspired analysis of social structures and tried to craft a Christian response. But, the liberation theologians strangely mimicked the neo-con capitalists they criticized, exercising an economic reductionism that equated the achievement of social progress with salvation. The neo-cons suggest the market will heal human ills, and the liberation theologians thought Marxist analysis would achieve the same end. Both ended up diminishing the most obvious Christian doctrine—original sin—and collapsing their hopes for the end time into a political program. Liberation theologians and neo-con American Catholics are loathe to admit it, but both committed the same mistake, reducing the mystery of man to a manageable problem capable of either Marxist or market manipulations. They approached the problem of the poor from different directions, but their relationship is strangely symbiotic.

Bergoglio was never seduced by the promises of the liberation theologians. For Christians, salvation comes from Christ, not from re-arranging social structures, and it must conquer death, not merely debt. Christians are called to love the poor, and to learn from the poor. Bergoglio and the other bishops in Latin America have been relentless in questioning and criticizing those who exercise power in ways that marginalize the poor. The criticism of capitalism is trenchant: He called the IMF’s efforts to squeeze interest payments out of a struggling Argentine economy “immoral.” Here, Bergoglio stands in continuity with Benedict whose criticism of modern capitalism never made headlines but was there for anyone who cared to look. Catholicism does not propose any specific economic or political systems, but it must always criticize whatever systems insult human dignity.

The reports from Rome before the conclave said that the cardinals wanted reform in the Church. This did not mean any of the cardinals were looking to change Church teaching on same-sex marriage, abortion or contraception. It meant they wanted someone to clean up the corruption that has infected the Vatican in recent years. Pope Francis has never worked at the curia, and it remains to be seen if he has the chops to change a culture he must first learn if he is to change it. Certainly, he has a mandate from the cardinals to clean house at the Vatican as well as an invitation to decentralize decision-making in the Church. Pope Benedict de-mystified the papal office by resigning it. Many Catholics today hope that Pope Francis will de-mystify it by assuming that same office. To identify with the poor, ultimately, is not a mystery, it is a ministry and Pope Francis has just become the most prominent minister in the world. 

Michael Sean Winters writes the Distinctly Catholic blog at the National Catholic Reporter. He is a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.