Who's On the Margins?

by Ken Briggs

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The "past lives regression" rush has itself regressed into the past, but for a moment at least it occurs that Pope Francis at one time was an officer in the Salvation Army.

The reason is that it seems clearer than ever that his agenda sounds like a page out of the Army's book. That is, rescue the suffering with the final goal of bringing them into the fold. It's an evangelistic drive with a charitable approach. It may have social justice effects but is primarily a mission to save the lost from spiritual doom. True to their compassion, the hungry and shivering who came to the door of the Army were sheltered and generously fed, but they were led in worship and testimony first. They were honest about it and were justly praised.

That sequence and set of priorities appears to be what Francis follows. It can be justified on its own, as the Army's has been, but it shouldn't be confused with "reform" or fighting for social change in pursuit of justice. His latest appeal to bring in the "marginal" seems primarily to be an ultimate means of saving their souls, though healing their wounds, both physical and emotionally, is a sacred prelude to that end.

Francis came to the papacy, in my estimation, with a conscious mandate to change the church's story from the bad news and daemonic cloud that had descended on it. He's done that magnificently by trimming hierarchical sails at least symbolically, in effect going after those who were thought to have brought about the bad news and, in the process, chiming in with the outrage against the elitist 1% in the secular realm. It was a brilliant move and isn't over. Clipping the wings of cardinals I'm sure has accounted for winning back many Catholics even though it may not mean anything on a practical level. He has targeted elements of the church considered most odious and gained a populist following for doing so, whether there are any real consequences or not.

In his latest appeal to reach out to the marginal and suffering, Francis is speaking from the heart and thinking from his passion for reversing the church's losses in the Western world. Those marginal ones need help,restoring health and belonging, but what they need even more in his reckoning is the blessing of the Catholic church. They are marginal economically and socially,to be sure, but in this thinking their greatest need is for what that church in particular can give them. It's worth noting, I think, that none of Francis' stirring evangelism (the basis of most of what he says) has even a whiff of suggestion that there is salvation outside the church. Ecumenism is passe.

Over the centuries, popes saw themselves as the "insiders" to truth and civilization and "outsiders" as infidels and apostates. But the lenses have been rearranged. Catholics, including their leader, are now much more likely to be seen by secularlists, followers of other religions and other Christians as the marginal and wayward. Until the Second Vatican Council at least brought it up, the Catholic church didn't allow that it had much to learn from anyone else. In a kinder, gentler way, one that has great tolerance for people as people, Francis nonetheless seems to be going back to that mind set. Perhaps he sees such urgency in building up the church again that he has set aside that broader view for strategic purposes though not rejecting its premise.

Apart from his institutional ends and his interfaith disinterest, the pope's cry on behalf of those who are deprived of sustenance and dignity is sufficient unto itself. Such mercy calls for mechanisms to make those provisions available and some direction on how mercy turns into reality. Much awaits.


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