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Thursday, 2 January 2014

Pope Francis, Truly of the People

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The Horizon By Kayode Komolafe  Email:    
As Pope Francis celebrates his first Christmas today in the Vatican as the leader of Catholics all over the world, it may be apposite to draw attention to the emerging character of his papacy. At least one discernible trait in the doctrinal development taking place in the  Vatican  is quite relevant to the message of Christmas: Pope Francis has reinvigorated the message of compassion which is at the heart of Christianity and other great religions. In other words, it is important to spare a thought about the social relevance of evangelism. It is on this point that Pope Francis is a leader to watch. 

Take a sample. On his twitter page last Thursday, the Pope said: “Let us pray that God grant us the grace of knowing a world where no one dies of hunger”.  Now that is a great departure from the sort of evangelism that blames the victim of hunger; some other leaders of faith would say the hungry man is suffering from the consequence of his sins. Doubtless, the Pontiff is carrying out a reform of the message issuing from the church. Some would even call what is taking place a revolution of sorts.

There is no way you could be honestly critical of the world in which billions of human beings live in abject poverty without being critical of the dominant ideology of the age. It is such a case that mass poverty is what global capitalism has got to show for its so-called ideological triumph in the cold war. Hence, Pope Francis has been unequivocal in his criticism of the recklessness of neo-liberal capitalism, which has wreaked havocs in the economies of even the developed capitalist societies. He has condemned the growing inequality in the global economic system.  He has never assumed the posture of a technical expert; he has only demonstrated a social conscience in his faith. This is the lesson religious leaders should learn from the Pope.

The Pope has been reported as posing this sobering question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” It is a question that those who glibly proclaim the end of ideology should sometimes ponder.  On another occasion, he said: “People continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth ... will bring about greater justice in the world. This opinion expresses a naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” The matter is put more explicitly when the Pope argues as follows: “As long as the problems of the poor are not resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets … no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.
” By the way, these random quotations from the statements that the Pope has made in the last few months are merely to illustrate the clarity of purpose in his message. More significantly, the fact that these statements are made by the Pope makes them to be weighty in global terms. After all, there was a Pope who was reputed to be a member of the ideological tripod that facilitated the “collapse of communism”. This is a frequent reference to the ideological roles of former American President Ronald Reagan, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thacther and Pope John Paul in the days of the cold war. Similarly, the message of Pope Francis is resonating today in liberal and conservative quarters. However, unlike Pope John Paul, Pope Francis does not appear destined to be a hero of the right. Members of the Tea Party in the United States already see something red about the Pope, which the rest of the world is, perhaps, not seeing yet.
  Little surprise that those who are cocooned in extreme right are quick to dub the Pope a “Marxist” for his message of compassion for the poor in a Christ-like manner.  Interestingly, the Pope has defended himself unambiguously against the charges of “Marxism”. He said: “Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have met a lot of Marxists who are good people, so I do not feel offended… That does not mean being a Marxist.” It is also instructive that as an Argentine, the Pope has lived under the regime of neo-liberal orthodoxy in economic management with its socially destructive consequences.
He is no stranger to the effects of global capitalism on the quality of life of the poor. Yet he is no liberation theologian. If anything, he is on record to have been critical of the leftist liberation theologians in Latin America in those days. Pope Francis is only reminding the Church of the primary question of compassion in its origins; this is a question that market forces do not yet have an answer. You don’t have to be a communist to appreciate this fact about humanity. All that is needed is to be socially sensitive to the widening inequality in the world today. This is the point that the conservative segment of the Pope’s audience should always bear in mind, as they are wont to assail him with ideological criticisms.

It is cheery news that not a few observers across the ideological spectrum are   watching the doctrinal direction in the Vatican with keen interest The TIME Magazine seems to capture the essence of the new direction of the Pope when it declared him “Person of the Year” last week for “pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy…” Besides, he has made a forceful case for a “greater presence” of women in the church. There is a lot of truth in the observation that the magazine puts like this: “These days it is bracing to hear a leader say anything that annoys anyone. Now liberals and conservatives alike face a choice as they listen to a new voice of conscience: Which matters more, that this charismatic leader is saying things they think need to be said or that he is also saying things they’d rather not hear?”

It is refreshing to know that the message from the Vatican is not only about abortion and homosexuals. While he maintains the fundamental views of the church on these largely social issues, he is nudging the church away from getting fixated on the issues. On homosexuality, he once asked: “who am I to judge?”  Now, this is far from being rhetorical. It is a possible call for a rethink. What is, however, not in dispute is that poverty and inequality are doing a greater havoc to humanity. In words and action, the Pope is reminding the world of this reality. He exudes humility and prefers a simple life. Some other men of God do not see the contradiction between their lives of opulence (sometimes  bordering on obscenity) and the poverty of the majority in the congregation. 
By rejecting the burgeoning inequality in the world today and making compassion a focus of evangelism, Pope Francis truly belongs to the people.

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