‘The Pope of Mercy’ preaches the social gospel

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Second of three parts

An authentic faith — which is never comfortable or completely personal—always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it.

… Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.﷓﷓Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel)

ARE some Catholics feeling like “the older son”?


In his overarching message extolling the mercy of God and reaching out to segments of the faithful once condemned by the Catholic Church, such as homosexuals and even non﷓believers, Pope Francis may be disappointing, if not disaffecting a good number of the devout and upright.

This is “the older son problem” facing the Holy Father, explains veteran Vatican watcher John Allen Jr. at the half­century anniversary of the Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay on March 12.

Allen is referring to the resentment, even anger, felt by the elder brother in the Prodigal Son parable recounted in last Saturday’s Mass Gospel reading.

Like the dutiful, obedient son fuming over his father’s celebration of his wayward sibling’s return from debauchery, loyal and obedient believers who have strictly followed Church teachings and morals, may feel somewhat sidelined in Francis’s stress on God’s mercy for those who stray from the Catholic way or even reject it.

Francis ruffles old friends
Some Catholics walking the straight and narrow path, along with selected hierarchy and clergy enamored of position and privilege, may indeed be unhappy with two of Francis’s three paramount tenets: servant leadership eschewing princely pretensions, and the unrelenting, all­embracing mercy of God, even for people once disdained by the devout.

The Pope’s third tenet—the Catholic social gospel —is also bound to stir disaffection among other age­old friends of the Papacy. Allen cites strong positions on social justice and geopolitics which Francis has taken in words and actions which cannot but ruffle longstanding ties or even alliances between the Vatican and the powers that be, whether at the national, international, and economic spheres.

Last October in Italy, Francis took up the cause of unfortunates seeking a better life. Thus, he deviated from the Church’s age­old caution with the politics of Italy. Why the Vatican should tread carefully on domestic controversies is easy to surmise from a map. As a minuscule speck on the boot of Italy, it’s not a good idea for the city­state to make Italians want to rub it out.

These days, Allen notes, no issue is more sensitive in the Catholic nation than the influx of immigrants decried as stealing jobs and breaking laws. So it utterly surprised even his close­in security when Francis visited Lampedusa island off the southern coast to pray for 500 would­ be African migrants shipwrecked less than 24 hours before, and lay a wreath for 20,000 such unfortunates killed making the journey. The day before Francis’s visit, about a hundred had died in the burning vessel, with 250 missing and 150 survivors.

That the Pope would openly rile Italians to espouse Christian charity echoes Christ’s own courage in facing Jews threatening to stone a woman caught in adultery. Brazil too saw Francis’s willingness to rub nations the wrong way in delivering Christ’s message of love and justice for the poor. During his visit to Rio de Janeiro for the World Youth Day festivities last July, he went to a crummy, desolate slum area notorious for violence. He then warned that peace will never come if the poor remain marginalized.

Taking on the wealthy and the West
In preaching the social gospel to the world, the Holy Father got the attention of two centers of global power: Wall Street and the West. Francis’s tirades against the exclusion and consumerism of the modern economy and the free market predictably disturbed the rich and powerful.

That led not only to public retorts from American business and political leaders devoted to capitalism; it also alienated big Church donors, as Home Depot’s billionaire founder Ken Langone told New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who was quick to reassure that Francis loves both poor and rich.

As for geopolitics, the Vatican broke ranks with the U.S. and its allies in opposing military action over Syria’s poison­gas attacks last year. For centuries, Allen explained, the Church generally aligned with the dominant Western power. Francis has shifted away from that informal but longstanding confluence not only to advocate peace, but also to safeguard Christians in Syria from the persecution that befell those in Iraq and Egypt after the fall of their autocrats.

Even as the West threatened attacks last September, Francis mobilized a diplomatic campaign against war. He himself performed a four­hour penitential rite to forestall hostilities. Those efforts, said Allen, were key to holding back the Americans and the Europeans keen to punish the Syrian regime.

Plainly, in advancing the social gospel of solidarity with Christians, justice and compassion for the poor, and opposition to war and violence, Francis is willing to stir up even traditional Church allies and supporters. In this, the Vicar of Christ reprises Jesus’s own courage in counseling the Jews ready to stone an adulterous woman in Saint John’s Gospel (8:7).

On the other hand, while the Holy Father may ruffle some old friends in delivering the Christian social messages, there is one centuries­old constituency which he can bank on: Filipino Catholics, including millions across the planet, often forming the core and driving force of the Church in many countries.

How Filipinos are advancing the Pope’s advocacies and shaping the future of Christianity will be discussed in the last part, coming out on Wednesday.

(The first part was published last Wednesday.)

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