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Pope Wants a Church of the Poor and For the Poor, But a Well-known Catholic Writer Rejects Saint Francis of Assisi

Pope Francis

The very first thing our new Pope did was to choose the name of Francis for St. Francis of Assisi. No Pope has ever been named Francis before. If Pope Francis had not done anything else, just claiming the name of Francis would have had a tremendous impact.

(Para leer este artículo en español, haga click en (spanish.cjd.org/2013/07/11/tenemos-un-papa-francisco-un-bien-reconocido-escritor-catolico-rechaza-a-san-francisco-de-asis/)

With the name comes all of the meaning of a Saint who lived the spirit of poverty and the reality of voluntary poverty. He was a man for the poor, but also a man of peace, against war, and a man who loved creation and all its creatures. He loved the Cross, even had the stigmata and suffered from it. St. Francis inspired and infiltrated the whole culture of his time.

What will George Weigel say now? Weigel is the person who wrote off St. Francis of Assisi as a marginal character who could not be taken seriously, who was outside the mainstream of Catholicism in his book Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace. How can he face Pope Francis?

And what is a humble Catholic to do? Who will our Bishops tell us to follow, Pope Francis or George Weigel, now that Weigel  has his new book outlining how the Church should be reformed?

We are hearing a clear message from Pope Francis. His message is very different from that of George Weigel, whose book, Evangelical Catholicism, has been positively reviewed by Catholics in many publications, and even by Cardinals and Bishops.

Pope Francis speaks often of solidarity with the poor and going out to those on the margins. He criticizes greed and an economic system that marginalizes so many people. He asks why we are talking about banks and the stock market when people are dying of hunger. He tells us that poverty and praise of God are the two key signs of an evangelical and missionary Church. “The proclamation of the Gospel must follow the path of poverty.”  He speaks of the horrors of war.

Weigel asks Bishops not to speak of these things. He insists that they must only speak about life issues and marriage and not try to extend the “reach” of the social doctrine of the Church into such areas as economics or war or “a host of matters that do not, except in the remotest sense, touch on questions of first principles or on areas of the Church’s special competence.” He has long said that economics, war, and justice are matters of prudential judgment and can only be addressed by laymen. He himself has spoken very forcefully in these areas over the last decades in the name of the Church, supporting economic libertarianism and striking out at others in war before they can attack you, but in this book forbids Church leaders to address the the moral issues involved in war and peace and economics.

Pope Francis does not hesitate to speak of them.

Pope Francis Did Not Heed Mr. Weigel’s Advice

Pope Francis boldly and publicly did the opposite of what Weigel advised. In an introduction to new Am-bassadors to the Holy See, he not only spoke about economics, but criticized the culture of consumerism and greed: “The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal. The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have begun a throw away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counter-productive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”

Pope Francis even said that his words were addressed to political leaders, although not, of course, in terms of political parties:

“There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. This would nevertheless require a courageous change of attitude on the part of political leaders.”

Church Reform

Before the conclave, everyone was talking about the need for reform in the Church, including George Weigel in his book which is subtitled “Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.” His book describes in detail exactly how he thinks reform should be carried out in every aspect of Church life.

The Cardinals and the Holy Spirit at the conclave did not exactly decide to follow Weigel’s imperious proclamations in his book. Rather, they elected Jorge Bergoglio. Pope Francis has not yet implemented his reform of the Curia, but it appears that he will not follow Weigel to the letter.

When we looked at his chapter on the ways Weigel says the papacy must be reformed, we were surprised to note that in a number of ways Pope Francis himself does not meet his criteria. For Weigel fluency in the English language is absolutely crucial for a Pope, and the language of the Curia should be English. He did also mention Spanish, but English was the most important. He said the Pope must be young enough to be physically vigorous and travel much, like John Paul II.

Weigel’s book, in which he outlines his plan for reform for the Church, for the bishops, for the papacy, for every aspect of Church life, does not speak of solidarity. He redefines Catholic social teaching as a sub-discipline of theology which “explores the ways in which a Catholic view of the human person and human communities can inform the quest to build free societies on solid cultural foundations.” What happened to solidarity and subsidiarity and justice in this equation? Not to mention the whole concept of gift in economics emphasized in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

Some reviews have made reference to Weigel’s thirty years of writing and advising bishops as they recommend his book. They neglect to mention that he has been a foremost theoretician, adviser, and lobbyist to politicians in the name of Catholicism in favor of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda on unbridled capitalism and war during those thirty years.

The economics that Weigel and the Ethics and Public Policy Center have advocated is the very economic system that Pope Francis has been criticizing, the one that has had a major negative impact on the suffering of many of the world’s poor today.

Those who reviewed the book positively forgot to mention that the biographer of John Paul II contradicted him very publicly when Weigel advocated the involvement of the United States in the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, which JPII opposed. He made up new rules about preemptive strikes which had never been a part of just war theory. Weigel has never acknowledged his error in giving Catholic cover for the invasion of Iraq or expressed his sorrow for the plight of the Iraqi people and its refugees which followed in the wake of the war. In his biography of John Paul II, he came close to canonizing Ronald Reagan, whose policies in U.S. involvement in Central America caused so much tragedy and suffering and have contributed to the continuing violence that plague those countries today.

Those of us who have spent much of our lives receiving refugees from the wars and that ruthless economic sys-tem have not forgotten.

Pope Francis words about war provide a welcome contrast to those of Weigel: “War is the suicide of humanity, because it kills the heart, it kills precisely that which is the message of the Lord: it kills love! Because war comes from hatred, from envy, from desire for power, and – we’ve seen it many times – it comes from that hunger for more power. So many times we’ve seen ‘the great ones of the earth want to solve’ local problems, economic problems, economic crises ‘with a war.’” “Why? Because, for them, money is more important than people! And war is just that: it is an act of faith in money, in idols, in idols of hatred, in the idol that leads to killing one’s brother, which leads to killing love.”

Confronting the Spirit of the Age

In his daily talks Pope Francis confronts the negative aspects of the spirit of our age, namely greed, consumerism, a culture of waste, a throw-away culture, and the greed and the will to power that lead to war.

In his book, Mr. Weigel has a section on “Confronting the Spirit of the Age.” He mentions none of the above, but expresses great concern about Gnosticism and what he calls the anti-metaphysical spirit.

While these can certainly be criticized in an important way, the omission of Francis’ concerns apparently reflects Weigel’s advocacy of the very economics that encourages greed, consumerism, and a throw-away culture.

Who Can Stay In the Church?

Weigel dismisses those on the left who he says have ceased to believe or who have wandered into vague spiritualities. He asks that they leave the Church.

He does not acknowledge that the faith of many Catholics is undermined by an apparent public identification by Bishops with a particular political party – with his advice and blessing.

The majority poor of the world would probably not meet Weigel’s full criteria for membership in the Catholic Church. Terms like popular piety are not a part of the vocabulary of his book.

Pope Francis has reafirmed that the Church is the People of God and that it is for everyone. “This invitation is open to all, without distinction, because God’s mercy “desires all people to be saved “(1 Tim 2:4). Jesus does not tell the Apostles and us to form an exclusive group, an elite group.”

Pope Francis – Don’t Keep People from the Sacraments

In his chapter on reform of the liturgy, Weigel insists that the “bishops must take far more seriously their responsibility to ensure that the people of the Church receive the sacraments worthily,” and that those who “insist on regular Mass attendance for several months before a child is baptized” must be supported by their bishops. He requires that cohabiting couples separate for six months before their marriage in the Church.

The Holy Father recently addressed these very questions, insisting that discussions with people seeking the sacraments be expressed in welcoming terms. He said, “Think about the attitude of many Christians:  Think of the good Christians, with good will, we think about the parish secretary, a secretary of the parish… ‘Good evening, good morning, the two of us – boyfriend and girlfriend – we want to get married’. And instead of saying, ‘That’s great!’ They say, ‘Oh, well, have a seat. If you want the Mass, it costs a lot…’ This, instead of receiving a good welcome- ‘It is a good thing to get married!’- But instead they get this response:’ Do you have the certificate of baptism, all right … ‘. And they find a closed door. When this Christian and that Christian has the ability to open a door, thanking God for this fact of a new marriage… We are many times controllers of faith, instead of becoming facilitators of the faith of the people. ”

And ‘there is always a temptation – said the Pope – to “try and take possession of the Lord.” And he tells another story: “Think about a single mother who goes to church, in the parish and to the secretary she says: ‘I want my child baptized’. And then this Christian, this Christian says: ‘No, you cannot because you’re not married!’. But look, this girl who had the courage to carry her pregnancy and not to return her son to the sender, what is it? A closed door! This is not zeal! It is far from the Lord! It does not open doors! And so when we are on this street, have this attitude, we do not do good to people, the people, the People of God, but Jesus instituted the seven sacraments with this attitude and we are establishing the eighth: the sacrament of pastoral customs!

“Jesus is indignant when he sees these things” – said the Pope – because those who suffer are “his faithful people, the people that he loves so much.”

Why Is What Pope Francis Says Different?

While there are some very beautiful passages in Evangelical Catholicism, a whole piece of the Gospel message is missing. Pope Francis, along with John Paul II and so many before them, as well as St. Francis of Assisi, recognized that followers of Jesus have to take seriously and try to understand Jesus’ words to the rich young man: “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor.” The whole first third of John Paul II’s encyclical on truth and theology, Veritatis Splendor, is a meditation on the story of the rich young man. This perspective is missing in this as in others of Weigel’s books.

The only mention of poverty is in the chapter on religious life where he speaks of poverty, chastity and obedience in the traditional sense.

   Pope Francis has spoken many times of his desire to have a Church which is poor and for the poor!”

Pope Leo XIII

 In his book Weigel mentions many outstanding theologians, but often arrives at different conclusions from theirs or leaves aside their concern for the poor.

He makes it sound like he and Pope Leo XIII, together with John Paul II, are one, frequently referring to Leo as the inventor of his own “evangelical Catholicism.” Incredibly enough, however, he never mentions Leo’s concern for the poor, the workers, his endorsement of labor unions, and his cri-ticism of both unbridled capitalism and communism. Perhaps this prolific writer’s library did not include the famous statement from Rerum Novarum: “Some remedy must be found, and quickly found, for the misery and wretchedness which press so heavily at this moment on the large majority of the very poor.”

It is hard to understand how Weigel can quote Leo XIII as the patron of his ideas and leave such important ones of Leo aside. It is a puzzle to understand why his views on economics and war appear to be untouched by Jesus’ words.

The most helpful analysis in an attempt to understand the views of neoliberals in these areas comes from David L. Schindler. Schindler attributes this approach to a misunderstanding (perhaps unwitting) of natural law that implies an extrinsic model of the relationship between nature and grace (see Henri de Lubac and Balthasar) as if grace is something extra that God adds on to a pre-existing and self-sufficient nature. Schindler believes that neoliberals too readily accept the claim that technology and some liberal institutions are “neutral,” rather than having, as they do, an interior logic of utilitarianism and perhaps even atheism (David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church). Schindler points out that the term Liberal comes from the nineteenth century and its philosophical base is the same for both political and economic conservatism and liberalism. Both put the emphasis on rights and freedom from coercion. Some on the left advocate freedom of choice on life and social issues while many on the right of the spectrum advocate economic libertarianism. Both are missing the boat in some profound ways.

What the Election of Francis Means for the Catholic Worker

We rejoice with Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the election of Pope Francis.

Several of Peter’s Easy Essays feature St. Francis and Holy Poverty and Dorothy often wrote about him.

Peter and Dorothy taught by their example that the way to rebuild the Church and society is the way of Saint Francis.  Like Francis, Peter and Dorothy made a decision not to start a sect, but to remain in the framework of the Church, modeling a unique way of transforming the Church and world by calling people more deeply to the Gospel.  The bond with the Church allowed Francis and later the Catholic Workers to maintain their radicalism in following the Gospel without losing perspective or seeking self-aggrandizement.  Any critique they made of the Church and the secular world would be seen in their lives.

The attraction of the CW to the life and methods of Francis was not unrelated to the amazing effect he had on the practices of economics, war and the social structure of his time.  Pragmatists wonder that the methods of Francis could even be considered.  Remember, they might say, this is the real world.  Catholic Workers, however, saw through their study of history that the methods of Francis had profound practical effects.

The Light From the East

 We know that Dorothy Day, who loved the Eastern liturgies and was a Benedictine Oblate in the Eastern rite, would rejoice in the news that the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Bartholo-mew I, travelled to Rome to take part in Pope Francis’ installation. He is the first ecumenical patriarch to take part since the Great Schism between the two churches in 1054. His spokesperson said the decision to take part in the Mass was “the fruit” of the growing dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church also sent a representative, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Being On Retreat With Pope Francis

Some say a breath of fresh air has come into the Catholic Church. Some are afraid to say the truth, that the Holy Spirit has anew come to blow the dynamite of the Church. Not just fresh air, not destructive dynamite, but the power of love, beauty, truth and goodness of the Holy Spirit pouring into our world. We’re still opening windows, and especially to the poor.

The Holy Spirit is behind this rumble.

We’re not sure which way to turn. For if it is truly the Spirit, we’re in trouble, because we are on the right path.

We have to be careful because it is the Sermon on the Mount which is inspiring many, not just the sermons of Bergoglio.

As we have listened to Pope Francis speak about the Christian life, we said, this is like being on retreat!

His statements have reminded us of Peter Maurin, who spoke of the “shock maxims” of the Gospel.   The theology of Pope Francis resonates with that of Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and, of course, the great saints, philosophers, and pastors who influenced them in developing their work. All of these people based their lives and work on the Gospel – the four Gospels in the New Testaments – and emphasized the prophets of Israel, and the Fathers of the Church.

We realized that the experience of listening to Francis was in some ways like going to the Famous Retreat that Dorothy Day made over 20 times. His talks are sprinkled with names of French personalists and other great writers from France from the renaissance of Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council, such as  Léon Bloy and Henri de Lubac. Most of all they are reflections on the Gospel.

His sermons, with excerpts made available every day through the Vatican press offices, have focused so much on the words of Jesus in the Gospel that he said some had asked him if he were a fundamentalist. His reply: No, that is just what Jesus said.

How could Pope Francis’ sermons and talks relate to Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin?

One who inspired the Catholic Worker movement was Canadian Father Lacouture, SJ, who developed the retreat, given by Father Hugo in the United States. Based on the first eight days of the 30-day Ignatian retreat, the writings of St. John of the Cross, and the Scriptures, it is what Dorothy Day called the bread of the strong. It has been reported that Pope Francis made the 30-day retreat twice and made the 8-day Ignatian retreat every year. Perhaps those Ignatian themes are what sound so familiar.

As Pope Francis speaks each day about the importance of being receptive to the Lord as Mary was, about the poor, about practical ways of living the Christian life, we are reminded of the themes of the retreat that Dorothy valued so much.

   Elected By the Cardinals

At each conclave to elect a new Pope, the whole Church prays that the Holy Spirit will guide the Cardinals in their voting and selection. To the surprise of almost everyone, Pope Francis was elected. We pray that he will help us all to better follow Jesus, to follow the Gospel, in the footsteps of Saint Francis.

As we serve the poor, the sick, and those who suffer each day here at Casa Juan Diego, we are grateful that Jorge Bergoglio became Pope and that he took the name of Francis.

Houston Catholic Worker, June-August 2013, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3.