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BEDI: Pope's involvement in contentious issues is not heretic

Some Catholics do not appreciate Pope Francis's actions and stances on certain issues, but they actually do not diverge from historical church viewpoints. – Photo by Wikimedia

Pope Francis has long been a controversial figure in the Catholic Church, with many conservative critics decrying his focus on migrant rights, environmentalism and interfaith dialogue.

The Pope has also been one of the most outspoken on contemporary political issues, ranging from criticizing American immigration policy to refusing to meet Mike Pompeo in the Vatican City.

He is the first Pope to have traveled to the Arabian peninsula, and he has already promulgated an influential encyclical (basically a circular letter), "Laudato si'," on the importance of fighting climate change. 

"Fratelli Tutti" (“All Brothers” in English) is his latest foray into these contentious issues, and it will probably shape up to cause a furor inside the Catholic Church. Pope Francis rails against “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” and “racism.” There are a couple of things that are a little more on-the-nose in there too.

Try guessing who the Pope is referencing here, in line 45: “Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures.” It is not just nationalism and populism the Pope is attacking though.

Libertarians will howl that “Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of 'spillover' or 'trickle' ... as the only solution to societal problems.” A fan of Reaganomics, Pope Francis is not. He is also bound to rankle a great many Catholics with his resounding condemnation of the death penalty, an institution he sees as a damning violation of human dignity and mercy. 

Needless to say, a lot of the pontifex maximus’s aforementioned traditionalist critics are not going to vibe well with what is being said here. Back in 2019, more than 1,500 Catholic theologians signed a letter calling the Pope a heretic. Cardinals have come out against him, eagerly looking to field a replacement much further to the right than Pope Francis.

Charges of modernism will fly off the tongues of fringe Sedevacantists within the Church. The arch-rightist, Francis-is-the-antichrist website, Novus Ordo Watch, has already put out an anti-Fratelli reading list on the matter. 

That all being said, what the Pope is exhorted on in "Fratelli Tutti" is not much of a divergence from earlier Catholic teaching on such topics. Take his stance on property rights, for example. Francis makes it clear that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.”

Communism? Not at all. The anti-communist papal encyclic al, "Rerum Novarum," written in 1891, quoted St. Thomas Aquinas on the property question, “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.”

This position, the just-use-of-property theory, has been part of Catholic tradition for centuries. Pope Francis merely reiterates what has always been known. Indeed, in "Fratelli Tutti" itself, he said “Business activity is essentially ‘a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world.’” Not exactly something you would find in the footnotes of "Capital" by Karl Marx. 

Pope Francis makes compelling arguments for all the positions he takes, grounding them in patristic appeals. As head of an international institution, he calls for global cooperation, but he warns against excess here — relying on the Catholic dogma of subsidiary to make a case for the value of the local.

The diversity of cultures is, to him, a gift that enriches humanity in multitudinous ways: “How much our human family needs to learn to live together in harmony and peace, without all of us having to be the same”!

His profoundly democratic vision relies on the love each person holds for his/her community, traditions and beliefs, angled toward the expression of solidarity neighbors can have: “Life without fraternal gratuitousness becomes a form of frenetic commerce, in which we are constantly weighing up what we give and what we get back in return.“

Opposed to a Kissingerian perspective on international relations, he appeals to a vision of a group of societies working in the service of a common good: human dignity.

When it comes to the individual level, Francis has some choice words for “consumerist isolation” and “people who have no use for history,” declaring that the kind of myopic "I-got-mine" view that has been a staple since Reagan (a “throwaway culture”) has conned people into working for the “service of the elite.”

Instead, he said, “A country flourishes when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, youth culture, artistic culture, technological culture, economic culture, family culture and media culture.”

This, in particular, should speak to Americans fed up with partisan bickering and fault lines embedded in the trenches of a culture war. Francis advises replacing it with what he terms “cultural encounter," a drive toward inclusion and greater cultural identification that goes beyond abstract ideals. 

His program is not an easy one to define. It is parochial and global, it calls for pragmatism while declaring itself utopian. Perhaps something like "Fratelli Tutti" could only have come from a man like Pope Francis, a modern man leading an ancient body.

As we progress into what is essentially an alien future for humanity, there is a certain appeal in this kind of revolutionary wisdom. In a world engulfed in flames with death all around, this appeal to goodness should resonate with all people, and, hopefully, give us a way out.

Sumit Bedi is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in philosophy. His column, "Through a Glass, Darkly," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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