The symbolism of Pope Francis

3 May

I have to start by saying I am not a Roman Catholic, so I am observing this from the outside. My first real exposure to Catholicism was through Latin American liberation theology, the life of Archibishop Oscar Romero, the murdered Salvadoran Jesuits, and that led me back to look at the radical tradition in American Catholicism. I also have to start by saying that I had a father who was deeply suspicious of what he would call “lip service,” people who would perhaps make a nod in a popular direction only verbally, or with some minor action, but the bulk of their actions perpetuated the same oppression and injustices that they had all along.

Having said that, like a lot of people, I have to admit I’ve been fascinated with some of the statements and symbolic actions of the new Pope, starting with his selection of his papal name after Francis of Assisi. I am just as troubled as many are about the questions in Pope Francis’ past and his behavior during the Dirty War in Argentina, and concerned about where he will stand on issues of gender equity, sexual orientation, and other social issues.

But there are two things that already are very notable, and in my opinion very admirable, about this pope. They are largely symbolic, but I’m arguing here that in a position such as his, symbolism is more than lip service, because it becomes an invitation for others to model their behaviors in response. Even if he is only “talking the talk,” it is right and necessary to talk in a language that listeners may not hear from other authorities in their lives. His talk makes it easier for millions of others not only to talk but act in a moral, even rebellious, way in the face of oppression of all different kinds.

The first of these is his attention to economic injustice, to poverty. What really prompted me to write this post was the comment he was quoted as having said when he learned of the Bangladeshi factory collapse: “Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us — the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity.” (This also is in many ways the essence of Liberation Theology, that as we are creative we extend God’s Creation.) And his statement yesterday, on Twitter(!), following on the heels of the other: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”

The fact that he is using his position to critique unapologetically the profit motive and the excesses of capitalist injustice is not insignificant, and links him in a common message with H.H. the Dalai Lama. They are perhaps the only world leaders who dare to criticize capitalism. At all. Think about that. Capitalism has become so dominant and unquestioned among our world leaders (elected and otherwise) that there are few lone voices even “permitted” (if I may say so) to provide a social justice or spiritual critique of the economic system that controls the world.

To be fair, Pope John Paul II was also critical of excessive capitalism. But the message that got more play in the international media was his critique of Communism, and the media tended to overlook some of his more radical criticisms of capitalism, which would surprise many people.

Who else is focusing on poverty and the excesses of the profit motive as severe problems in this morally bankrupt world? (Any American Presidents in the past thirty years?)

That’s why it becomes so essential to have someone in his shoes who opens the space for that discussion. Without anyone who gives that his blessing, even symbolically, every practical and even speculative discussion that takes place around the world on the question of sustainability and the relationship between capitalism and the survival of our environment and the poor is by definition marginalized.

The second of his qualities, symbolic or real, is humility. Whether or not he actually is that humble, certain of his actions, ways of thinking, and lifestyle choices, set an example for millions if not billions of people. Regardless of your politics or religion, humility is never bad. (I’m not even going to get into a theological discussion of this in the Bible.) Learning how to think humbly, how to choose the humble option that refuses to dominate other people, other beings, or our Earth, is part a process of personal transformation that is fundamentally necessary if we are to coexist and survive as a species.

Throughout your life, every day in fact, you are presented with options about how to act and how to behave. If you always look for and choose the option of humility, especially if you are a person in a position of power, the impact will be warm and positive on the people around you. What this pope seems to understand is that as a spiritual guide it is his role to show people there is always a humbler way.

Sure, when you get to that level of the world stage – and let’s not forget his actual power as the Supreme Pontiff – you can afford to be humble, even to pretend to be humble. But inspiring people to be humble by imitation, does not make them submissive, as some might cynically suggest, and for his Western audiences, some of the main reasons our environmental sustainability is at risk derive directly from Western and capitalist arrogance. For too long we have acted as if we have a right to conquer nature, to dominate the world, to control other people, and to have unlimited access to the world’s resources. But if indeed we believe that we are all part of God’s Creation, then we have to have the humility to recognize that we share the Earth not only with every nationality but with every living being.

Why not go to a jail to celebrate one of the most sacred masses of the year with the imprisoned, which included young men and women, immigrants, including some who were not Catholic, and some from the most despised ethnic and national groups? Aside from the literal fact that visiting those in prison is explicitly encouraged in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, wouldn’t we experience an incredible social transformation if we all did this? If the most privileged among us took the time and care, and charity, to visit those the most “at-risk” and oppressed?

Pope Francis may do this but once a year. But each of us can follow this symbolic example in our daily lives. Our international leadership, indeed our local civic leadership as well, has become so pragmatic, so cynical, sometimes so money-driven, and sometimes so corrupt, that qualities of justice, compassion, interdependence, empathy, creativity, honesty, sharing no longer exist in civic discourse, in any country. We can debate and write volumes about what it will take to bring about this social transformation, but without any world example, who will teach our young people that such qualities are part of global citizenship?

It is part of the greatness of Nelson Mandela that he is perhaps unique among world leaders to live this kind of life in a secular and civic context.

Another tweet from the Pope (and exactly who else would be listened to if he or she said this?): “How marvelous it would be if, at the end of the day, each of us could say: today I have performed an act of charity towards others.”

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