Pope Francis Brings Back the Seamless Garment

The Holy Father’s speech last night to the World Meeting of Social Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia will, and should, be considered as one of the key texts of this pontificate to date. The poor man had to listen first to a rambling speech by the Bolivian President Evo Morales: Somebody give him a text and an editor, pronto. But, when the pope made his way to the rostrum, he not only won the room, he asked each of us to think differently, and more deeply, about the moral vision at the heart of Christianity and what that vision has to say to the peoples of our time.

Among the many lines that deserve attention, these sentences deserve pride of place. The pope said:

The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you. Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age. Keep up your struggle...

The first thing to note about those words is that they recapitulate the vision once articulated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in his “seamless garment” approach to the Church’s teaching, but they also expand the late cardinal’s vision. +Bernardin was linking the Church’s teachings on life one to another, but the Holy Father insists that all the Church’s teaching hang together. The theme of the meeting was the three L’s – lodging, land and labor – but the pope expands those three also, to include the sovereignty of people and the dignity of the human person.

Then, comes that stunning phrase: “no child without childhood.” These are the words of a man who has had the heart-wrenching experience of engaging young people whose lives have been scarred by violence or poverty or both and who, consequently, have had to learn to make adult decisions, and confront adult problems, at a far too early age. Similarly, the call for a “venerable old age” for all the elderly comes from a pastor’s heart, a pastor who has seen the elderly cast aside and forgotten.

In an earlier section of his talk, the Holy Father said:

In your letters and in our meetings, you have mentioned the many forms of exclusion and injustice which you experience in the workplace, in neighborhoods and throughout the land. They are many and diverse, just as many and diverse are the ways in which you confront them. Yet there is an invisible thread joining every one of those forms of exclusion: can we recognize it? These are not isolated issues. I wonder whether we can see that these destructive realities are part of a system which has become global. Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?

If such is the case, I would insist, let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.

Who is going to tell the pope? His invitation to give a lecture at Acton U next year just got revoked. The “system” the pope here denounces is the system they celebrate, but the pope looks at the system from the bottom up and in real, experiential terms, not as a mere theory. And, it is not only our friends at Acton who have to re-think their attitude towards the global market economy. Those who trot out the talking point that capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty must ask themselves if the concurrent, and consequent, exclusion of millions of others does not indict the very system for which apologies are made. The pope is channeling Dorothy Day who famously called for an end to this “filthy, rotten system.”

Modernity’s most significant intellectual, social and cultural accomplishment was the “turn to the subject.” But, the pope is ambivalent about that accomplishment. The turn to the subject too easily became a turn to the self. Our systems of government and economics stipulate and require the turn to the subject but they lack within themselves the resources to avoid the turn to the self. The result is unsustainable economies, unsustainable polities, unsustainable environmental practices. The pope urges us to forge a new and different system, actually many systems, that stipulate a turn not to the self but to the other, to the excluded, to the marginalized.

What that system or systems will look like, no one knows. The pope said, “So don’t expect a recipe from this Pope.” But, the Holy Father also discerned the seeds of what must come next. He said:

What can I do, as collector of paper, old clothes or used metal, a recycler, about all these problems if I barely make enough money to put food on the table? What can I do as a craftsman, a street vendor, a trucker, a downtrodden worker, if I don’t even enjoy workers’ rights? What can I do, a farmwife, a native woman, a fisher who can hardly fight the domination of the big corporations? What can I do from my little home, my shanty, my hamlet, my settlement, when I daily meet with discrimination and marginalization? What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with their hearts full of hopes and dreams, but without any real solution for my problems? A lot! They can do a lot. You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels. Don’t lose heart!

I am sure that some of our conservative friends will go ballistic at his mention of the “ability to organize.” Sounds suspiciously like a community organizer, no? But, the Holy Father is not afraid of community organizing, indeed, he sees it as the essential component in crafting a new, and better, approach to the problems of the day. Just as he views “the system” from the bottom up, so he believes the solutions must come from the bottom up, they must be varied and multiple, but they must incline to justice. He entrusts these efforts to the protection of the Blessed Mother in another stunning part of the speech, saying, “Let us always have at heart the Virgin Mary, a humble girl from small people lost on the fringes of a great empire, a homeless mother who could turn a stable for beasts into a home for Jesus with just a few swaddling clothes and much tenderness. Mary is a sign of hope for peoples suffering the birth pangs of justice.” These are not the words of someone drowning in patriarchal sensibilities. These are the words of someone who sees in the Blessed Mother great strength, the Virgin who bespoke the Magnificat and who accompanied Her Son even to the Cross. Like her, he is not afraid to remind the rich that they shall be sent away empty and the mighty that they will be cast down from their thrones.

The pope is on fire. Will the flame catch on here in the U.S. when he comes in two months time? Will we have the honesty to see the world as he sees it, from the bottom up, from the perspective of the excluded? Will we have the courage to question ourselves and our lifestyles and our decisions? Will we have a heart capable of seeing the damage we have wrought?  

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here