Pope Francis and his predecessors

Two items caught my attention yesterday, the first an interview Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave to Avvenire and a talk by Cardinal Peter Turkson at a Catholic University conference on Catholic social teaching and business. Both demonstrate the fallacy of seeing Pope Francis’ papacy as one of sheer discontinuity with the papacies of his predecessors. Obviously, there are differences, and significant differences. But, as Pope Benedict said in his 2005 address to the Roman Curia regarding the interpretation of Vatican II, so might we say regarding the relationship of Francis to his predecessors: One needs a "hermeneutic of reform" with elements of both continuity and discontinuity.

In the Vatican News account of the interview with Benedict, we read:

[T]he interview focuses on two highly controversial issues in the post-Conciliar era: the right understanding of Christ’s unique and universal act of salvation with respect to those who do not profess Christian faith; and the right understanding of the primacy of mission in the life of the Church with respect to dialogue.

At the core of the two distinct, though related questions, says Pope Benedict, is the need to recover a sense of the Divine mercy - something Pope Francis has understood and placed at the center of his pastoral solicitude.

“Only where there is mercy does cruelty end,” said the Pope-emeritus in the interview.

“Pope Francis is totally in accord with this line: his pastoral practice expresses itself precisely through the fact that he continually speaks to us of God's mercy. It is mercy that moves us towards God, while justice frightens us before him.”

“In my view,” continued Pope Benedict, “this sets in relief the fact that, beneath the veneer of confidence in himself and [human] justice, contemporary man hides a deep knowledge of his injuries and his unworthiness before God: he is waiting for mercy,” said Pope Benedict.

I cannot think of a better curtain-raiser to Pope Francis’s exhortation on the family, which is expected almost any day now, and how I anticipate he will relate the themes related to the topic of the family to the Holy Year of Mercy.

As well, Benedict’s observation about contemporary man and his “deep knowledge” shows us a side of Benedict that his would-be acolytes tended to miss: Yes, he was concerned about the “dictatorship of relativism” and all that, but there was a deep and abiding trust in the Providence of God in all of his writings and sermons. He did not simply offer a cultural critique but, in the manner of the Old Testament prophets, offered the critique to call us to what is best and truest about ourselves, our selves which are made in the image and likeness of a God who has revealed Himself as Mercy itself.

Cardinal Turkson spoke at a conference organized to examine the ideas of integral ecology that are at the heart of Laudato Si' and, indeed, ideas that are found throughout Catholic Social Teaching going back to Pope Leo XIII and, before that, to Aquinas and the Hebrew prophets. One such core value in Catholic Social Teaching to which +Turkson made repeated reference is the universal destination of goods. The cardinal said:

Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. In Laborem Exercens § 14, he stressed that the best way to apply the universal destination of goods in the context of the modern economy was to make sure that people received just remuneration for their work. He followed this up in Centesimus Annus by arguing that ownership of the means of production is only just and legitimate if it serves useful work—not speculation or despoliation.

Now Laudato si’ strongly re-affirms the universal destination of goods. “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.”

Alas, it goes without saying that this core teaching is not exactly reflected in current economic practice so I was delighted to hear Cardinal Turkson make this point to a conference of business leaders and business students. If Laudato Si' teaches us anything it is that without this teaching becoming central to our understanding of the economy, the viability of the entire planet is threatened.

I was also delighted to hear Cardinal Turkson say this: “I should note that some have claimed that Centesimus Annus changed the tenor of Catholic social teaching, and even abrogated prior teaching on the market economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Saint John Paul II follows directly in the footsteps of his predecessors. And like his predecessors, he recognized the twin dangers of both collectivism and individualism.” I was unable to attend this conference in person, but when the videos come out, I am hoping they show the looks on the faces of two other conference speakers, Michael Novak and George Weigel. In his memoir, Novak recounts how he influenced the drafting of Centesimus Annus, and how he received the final text two days in advance and was able to offer an authoritative interpretation of the text before others. In this work, he was joined by Weigel who has repeatedly suggested that Centesimus Annus broke important new ground in the Church’s appreciation for the market. To which Cardinal Turkson replies: Bosh! There may be a difference in tone. How could there not be? In 1991, the Berlin Wall had just come down and Fukuyama’s “The End of History” had just been published. There was hope in the air that a more humane form of capitalism might emerge. It was not to be.

Pope Francis’ comments about the market economy are undoubtedly more trenchant than those of his predecessors in part because the consequences of that economy are now more evident. As well, Francis speaks less like a professional theologian, which he is not, and more like a pastor, which he is. It is hard to imagine Benedict, with his careful, dense prose, saying, as Francis did in Bolivia last year: “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment. It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right. The universal destination of goods is not a figure of speech found in the Church’s social teaching. It is a reality prior to private property. Property, especially when it affects natural resources, must always serve the needs of peoples.” Benedict did not talk that way, but he believed and believes what the Church teaches and this is what the Church teaches. +Turkson quoted that passage too yesterday. He also affirmed the right of workers to organize, saying, “[Pope Leo] called for economic relationships based on justice and charity, recognizing the centrality of a living wage and calling for the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. This aspect of human ecology remains of central importance today—not just in some of the world’s poorest countries where workers face conditions every bit as harsh and degrading as in Pope Leo’s time, but also in countries like the United States too.”

An interview and an address, on different topics and from different churchmen, but both make the same ecclesial point: Pope Francis is no “outlier.” The papacy has not been hijacked by a benighted Argentine who does not understand modern economics or Catholic moral teaching. He is, like his predecessors, the universal pastor of the Church, teaching what the Church has always taught, albeit in a new and vigorous manner that derives from his pastoral experience and deep spirituality. Anyone who traffics in the “It’s okay to criticize Francis” meme (a meme never deployed by these critics against John Paul II or Benedict), or suggests that this pope is an aberration, or otherwise tries to question his legitimacy, is, of course, entitled to their opinion. What they are not entitled to is the invocation of the memory of his predecessors in making their criticisms.

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