|Pope Francis on Trump: "Wait and see"|
Everyone knows we are divided, and no one thinks that’s good. But we seem at a loss for a solution. Can the Catholic Vision help? How?
Sometimes teachers learn more than they teach!
Recently I conducted a session for adults preparing to join the Roman Catholic Church. An important question surfaced: are Catholic Social Teachings just general principles without much practical direction, or do they include specific actions to implement those principles--or are they someplace in between?
The question would be important anytime, since the answer determines how relevant Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is to our daily experience of the society and the culture we inhabit. But the question is especially urgent now, when Americans are divided into two equally unhappy camps.
One camp is convinced that America is in grave danger from terrorists, illegal immigrants, refugees, rampant crime, lost jobs, unfair trade deals, the media, and the power of establishment elites. The other camp is equally convinced that America is endangered by a dishonest, incompetent, paranoid administration that is bent on conning the public and curtailing our rights and protections to achieve its mission of self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment.
Observing these two unhappy camps locked in a power struggle, I recall a key theme from Vatican II (1962-1965): that the Catholic Church must position itself as a public source of wisdom, to help steer power away from evil and toward good.
This begs the question: can Catholic Social Teaching do that job? Can it provide the wisdom we need to steer this current power struggle in the US toward good results?
Pope Francis has been speaking to this question quite a lot recently. His comments focus on two notions of great practical value for people of faith.
Notion #1: “Wait and See.” One thing both unhappy camps share is inflated rhetoric. One side invents its own facts: immigrants are pouring in, refugees import terror, crime is soaring, joblessness stems from free trade and regulation. The other side spins hypothetical horror scenes of mass deportations, treasonous collusion, police state tactics. Such rhetoric fuels the conflict but provides little basis for resolving it.
Francis prefers to wait for concrete facts. In his January 22 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, when asked about of his own opinion of the new American president, Pope Francis avoided both alarmism and cheerleading. He suggested, rightly I think, the prudence of basing any response on actual events rather than invented fears or anticipated outrages:
I think that we must wait and see. I don't like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion. But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise. It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not be either. We will see. We will see what he does and will judge. Christianity always rests on the specific, either a position is specific or it is not Christianity.
…We need specifics. And from the specific we can draw consequences. We lose sense of the concrete. The other day, a thinker was telling me that this world is so upside down that it needs a fixed point. And those fixed points stem from the concrete. What did you do, what did you decide, how do you move. That is what I prefer to wait and see.
The public response to Trump’s travel ban is a perfect illustration of “specific” action. The very day the government began detaining immigrants, green card holders, even those with visas, protesters thronged airports, vast crowds filled city squares, and the courts acted swiftly to halt the ban. This fits rather neatly with Francis’ advice. Rather than jump to conclusions, we should respond to results.
But this leaves open the question: on what basis do we judge the results?
Notion #2: The Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching. Of course, specific responses presume preparation. They require the ability to mobilize people who are ready to act and who know when the time for action has arrived. Pope Benedict XVI famously said that the Church cannot stand on the sidelines in the fight for justice--but to arbitrate any contest, one must master the rules. So in many recent statements, Pope Francis has been demonstrating how Catholic Social Teaching (CST) can provide practical rules for the conflicts we face.
Such practical teaching must avoid two extremes. If CST offers only general principles, arguing about how they apply might lead to endless debate that frustrates rather than promotes action. But if CST attempts to dictate specific policies or actions, people may argue that the Church is stepping beyond its expertise into technical areas where its competence is suspect. In short, if the Church wants CST to provide practical wisdom, then it must go beyond theoretical platitudes but avoid technical solutions.
And here Francis guides us, for in comment after comment he makes it clear that CST offers something different. CST offers neither mere principles nor specific solutions; instead, it offers concrete criteria for judging actions that we or others take to solve problems.
This makes CST highly pragmatic. Instead of obsessing over hypotheticals, it focuses on actual results. Instead of claiming to provide concrete solutions, CST provides clear criteria for evaluating concrete solutions. It’s not enough to take actions that achieve results; those results must fit CST criteria or be rejected. In this sense, the gospel message is radically pragmatic: we need not argue about rhetoric or theories, but ask rather which theories are working or not working. Thus CST cannot dictate solutions, but it can judge them.
And this helps us to prepare to act, because we can formulate the criteria in advance of any particular action. Francis has demonstrated this over and over. Examples abound:
Asked by El Pais about populism that carries a message of “xenophobia and hatred toward the foreigner,” the pope replied:
Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. After (Paul von) Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character…“Let’s look for a savior who gives us back our identity and let’s defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other peoples who may rob us of our identity.” And that is a very serious thing…No country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility of talking with their neighbors.
The use of “savior” here is key, since it implies that for Christians such a politics is idolatry—as clear a criterion as any in our faith!
Asked about the treatment of refugees and other religion, the pope was equally concrete:
You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian. You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.
Matthew chapter 25 is Jesus’ injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. The pope went on:
It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help…If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.
So if criterion #1 is idolatry, #2 is hypocrisy.
In mid-February Francis sent a letter to a meeting of popular movements in California to express his view of popular resistance movements:It makes me very happy to see you working together towards social justice…because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals. These are bridges that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance…For some time, the crisis of the prevailing paradigm has confronted us. I am speaking of a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.
These are signs of the times that we need to recognise in order to act.…The grave danger is to disown our neighbours. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realising it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, dehumanisation.
Criterion # 3: Disowning the neighbor leads to dehumanization.
Within the last two weeks some journals headlined the pope's opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline being constructed through US tribal lands. Actually, the pope never mentioned the pipeline. But he offered a clear criterion for addressing that case, when he told representatives of indigenous peoples at a U.N. agricultural meeting that the key issue facing them is how to reconcile the right to economic development with protecting their cultures and territories.
|Francis at the Conference on indigenous peoples in Rome|
Indigenous people, he said, have a right to their ancestral lands. And this provides a clear rule for action:
In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail…Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.
Finally, when Francis takes on the “Trickle Down Theory” for reducing economic inequality (see CrossCurrents #461), he does not talk about equality of OPPORTUNITY--he talks about the actual results of economic structures that, whatever the theory on paper, in practice LEAVE millions excluded from prosperity. We may argue about why this happens, and who is responsible, and how to solve the problem--but we may NOT deny that it is a problem that plagues most third-world countries as well as our own.
The preferential option for the poor is a matter of principle for Catholic Social Teaching, and no system that results in massive inequality can be justified by any theory. The pope believes the current model has had ample opportunity to prove itself, and has failed. So it is folly to expect suddenly better results if we cling to what Francis calls "the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." He believes it is time to give “equal opportunity” to another model.
Thus, on issue after issue, this pope advises that we “wait and see” but also prepare ourselves with clear standards for judging what actually happens. And for THAT job, Catholic Social Teaching provides a valuable legacy.
"By their fruits you will know them...."—and By His Fruits You Will know Him.© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017