Religion

Pope Francis, Social Justice, and Pure Religion

Do orthodoxy and social justice really have to be mutually exclusive?

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March 13, 2014
March 13, 2014
AFP/Alberto Pizzoli
During a homily the other day the priest issued a convicting call for Christians to be engaged in feeding the hungry, caring for the homeless, visiting those in prison. He finished by saying that we shouldn’t get bogged down with our sins and a focus on sex, but rather engage in what’s most important to Jesus—care for the poor and promoting social justice. I had heard this priest many times before, and knew that he didn’t really mean that sin doesn’t matter. So I find myself asking why would he feel the need to make his strange distinction between loving the poor and avoiding sin. In the Christian life, must we really choose one or other?

His homily was a classic example of the pervasive, false dichotomy between theological doctrine and social justice that has dominated much of Catholic thought and preaching since the 1960s.

This type of thinking has caused division and suspicion among different “strands” of Catholics. A friend once remarked to me that whenever he hears a Catholic use the words “social justice,” he assumes based on experience that the person will support abortion.

The chasm between justice and orthodoxy also has had negative effects on the faithful and church attendance by hollowing out the redeeming message of Catholicism. According to some estimates, up to one third of American Catholics have left the Church since the 1960s, with a large number of them becoming conservative evangelicals. I can’t tell you the number of evangelicals I have met who were raised Catholic, attended Catholic schools, and ended up leaving the Church. The main reason I hear is that they rarely heard about friendship with Jesus or the basic tenets of Christian faith—until they encountered evangelical Protestants.

This exodus isn’t limited to the United States. As the saying goes in Latin America: the Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism.

One of the interesting developments to watch over the next few years will be to see how Pope Francis helps to break down this misleading doctrine/justice opposition. Since he understands the mistake of cutting off either of the legs that carry Christian life, Francis does not play one against the other, but emphasizes each in its turn, and even explores their interdependence.

From his first moments as pope, Francis has urged Christians to come out of ourselves and engage the poor. “The place for Christ is in the streets,” he said. He warned against the indifference of the rich man to the suffering of Lazarus. As he writes in Evangelii Gaudium,
 
“Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. 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.” (54)

With the same passion, he speaks openly about sin and the devil, is vehemently pro-life and has been a consistent defender of marriage. He speaks about the need for deep prayer life and the importance of the sacraments and human formation in the virtues. At the center of his message is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, who cares about each of us as a unique and unrepeatable person with an eternal destiny.

I once met a young Capuchin friar who does a lot of work with the poor who said that the young doctrinally-interested Catholics of his generation are very concerned with theology, orthodoxy, liturgy and the sacraments, while the social justice crowd is concerned with the poor but not with theology and liturgy. He wondered if there is a way to bring them together.
During a homily the other day the priest issued a convicting call for Christians to be engaged in feeding the hungry, caring for the homeless, visiting those in prison. He finished by saying that we shouldn’t get bogged down with our sins and a focus on sex, but rather engage in what’s most important to Jesus—care for the poor and promoting social justice. I had heard this priest many times before, and knew that he didn’t really mean that sin doesn’t matter. So I find myself asking why would he feel the need to make his strange distinction between loving the poor and avoiding sin. In the Christian life, must we really choose one or other?

His homily was a classic example of the pervasive, false dichotomy between theological doctrine and social justice that has dominated much of Catholic thought and preaching since the 1960s.

This type of thinking has caused division and suspicion among different “strands” of Catholics. A friend once remarked to me that whenever he hears a Catholic use the words “social justice,” he assumes based on experience that the person will support abortion.

The chasm between justice and orthodoxy also has had negative effects on the faithful and church attendance by hollowing out the redeeming message of Catholicism. According to some estimates, up to one third of American Catholics have left the Church since the 1960s, with a large number of them becoming conservative evangelicals. I can’t tell you the number of evangelicals I have met who were raised Catholic, attended Catholic schools, and ended up leaving the Church. The main reason I hear is that they rarely heard about friendship with Jesus or the basic tenets of Christian faith—until they encountered evangelical Protestants.

This exodus isn’t limited to the United States. As the saying goes in Latin America: the Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism.

One of the interesting developments to watch over the next few years will be to see how Pope Francis helps to break down this misleading doctrine/justice opposition. Since he understands the mistake of cutting off either of the legs that carry Christian life, Francis does not play one against the other, but emphasizes each in its turn, and even explores their interdependence.

From his first moments as pope, Francis has urged Christians to come out of ourselves and engage the poor. “The place for Christ is in the streets,” he said. He warned against the indifference of the rich man to the suffering of Lazarus. As he writes in Evangelii Gaudium,
 
“Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. 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.” (54)

With the same passion, he speaks openly about sin and the devil, is vehemently pro-life and has been a consistent defender of marriage. He speaks about the need for deep prayer life and the importance of the sacraments and human formation in the virtues. At the center of his message is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, who cares about each of us as a unique and unrepeatable person with an eternal destiny.

I once met a young Capuchin friar who does a lot of work with the poor who said that the young doctrinally-interested Catholics of his generation are very concerned with theology, orthodoxy, liturgy and the sacraments, while the social justice crowd is concerned with the poor but not with theology and liturgy. He wondered if there is a way to bring them together.


In many ways this is what Pope Francis is doing, though “bringing them together” is an incorrect metaphor. Authentic social justice is in the realm of moral theology and flows from orthodox belief—otherwise it can easily become another political ideology. Pope Francis has stressed that the Church is not simply another NGO. He echoes Benedict XVI who warned in Caritas in Veritate that if justice is separated from theology, charity becomes “misconstrued and emptied of meaning.”
 
Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith … Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” (3)

Francis is reaffirming the core of Catholic Social Teaching since Leo XIII: a concern for social justice is not opposed to, but must flow from, our relationship with Christ, from the liturgy and the sacraments, from our interior life, and from an understanding of the mystical body of Christ.

The Pope is also following in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was not the only person of his time running around talking about evangelical poverty and care for the downtrodden. There were other groups like the Waldensians doing similar things—while teaching their own doctrines that departed from the apostolic Faith. What made Francis stand out was his focus on the interior life and his fidelity to orthodox Christian belief. It was this combination that calmed Pope Innocent’s fears and made St. Francis a force throughout the centuries.

What Pope Francis is teaching us in word and deed is at the heart of Christianity. Unless Christ is at the center of hunger for justice, “those who labor, labor in vain.” Pope Francis is following his predecessors and St. Francis, but also an earlier saint, St. James, who sums up the Gospel when he writes “pure religion is this, to care for the widow and the orphan in their distress, and keep ourselves unstained from the world.” (James 1.27) Christians sometimes focus on one at the expense of the other. Francis is reminding us that “pure religion,” means both. If his example is followed, the effects will be immeasurable.


Michael Matheson Milleris a research fellow at the Acton Institute and the Director of PovertyCure. Connect with him on Twitter: @mmathesonmiller.
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