Pope Francis brings a new lens to poverty, peace and the planet

April 23, 2018
By Robert W. McElroy
America: The Jesuit Review

Five years ago, Jorge Bergoglio became Francis, choosing at the moment of his election in March 2013 a name that no pope had taken before. His choice of the name served as a signpost for the direction in which he would lead the global church. In his embrace of the poor, his pursuit of nonviolence and his care for all of God’s creation, Pope Francis has brought the legacy of the great saint of Assisi to the very heart of the church’s proclamation to the modern world.

It is especially fruitful, then, in assessing the first five years of the Francis pontificate, to examine how the pope’s contributions to Catholic social teaching have reflected the three Franciscan priorities of poverty, peace and the planet. In what way has the leadership of the first pope from the New World enriched or altered the body of Catholic social teaching? What is it about his papacy or perspective that has generated such substantial opposition to Pope Francis, particularly within the United States? How should we characterize the mission that the pope has taken on behalf of economic justice, building peace and caring for our common home?

A New Lens

The starting point to answering these questions lies in recognizing that the relationship between the social teachings of Pope Francis and his predecessors is not, fundamentally, one of continuity or discontinuity. Rather, the relationship that Pope Francis’ teachings on poverty, peace and the environment have with the tradition he inherited is one of fundamental continuity but refracted through a strikingly new lens.

This new lens reflects in a fundamental way the experience of the church in Latin America. Critics of Pope Francis point to this as a limitation, a bias that prevents the pope from seeing the central issues of economic justice, war and peace and the environment in the context of the universal church. But St. John Paul II certainly enriched key aspects of Catholic social teaching from a perspective profoundly rooted in the experience of the Eastern European church under communism. Contemporary critics of Pope Francis voice no objection to that regional and historical perspective.

Furthermore, the church in Latin America constitutes more than 40 percent of the Catholics in the world. When combined with the Catholic populations of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, which face similar economic and environmental challenges, the church of the global south constitutes more than two-thirds of the universal church. The Argentine pope’s perspective on Catholic social teaching is, then, one shared by the majority of Catholics.

There are four major elements that shape how Pope Francis understands the Catholic tradition on the issues of poverty, peace and the planet.

See-judge-act. The first and most important element is the recognition that Catholic social teaching must be comprehensively inductive. Specifically, Pope Francis employs the see-judge-act methodology, which roots Catholic teaching and action in the world as it is, rather than the world as one imagines or wishes it to be. This is the central methodology used by the church in Latin America to discern how the church is being called to respond in areas ranging from evangelization to spiritual formation to social justice.

The see-judge-act method begins theological reflection by seeing the world as it truly is, then pondering the implications in light of our faith and the Gospel and, finally, promoting action in concert with those implications. As the pivotal final document of the Latin American and Caribbean bishops’ meeting at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007 stated, “This method enables us to combine successfully a faithful perspective for viewing reality; incorporating criteria from faith and reason for discerning and appraising it critically; and accordingly acting as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Throwaway culture. Next, Pope Francis approaches the tradition of Catholic social thought through the theme of exclusion. Marginalization, viewed as a denial of the right to participate meaningfully in political, economic, social and cultural life, has long been a major focus of Catholic social teaching. The concept of exclusion that Pope Francis deploys is broader than marginalization; it is reflective of the interwoven deprivations that do not merely banish entire populations to the margins of society but exclude them entirely. In Pope Francis’ memorable terminology, such people are victims of a “throwaway culture,” discarded from any meaningful participation in society.

The colonial history of Latin America and the neocolonialism that endures on many levels today has attuned this pope to the manner in which grave inequalities of wealth and power inevitably result in the patterns of exclusion that pulverize the human spirit.

In light of this history, the Latin American church is suspicious of globalization. The bishops’ Aparecida document explicitly states: “In globalization, market forces easily absolutize efficacy and productivity as values regulating all human relations.... In its current form, globalization is incapable of interpreting and reacting in response to objective values that transcend the market and that constitute what is most important in human life: truth, justice, love and most especially, the dignity and rights of all, even those not included in the market.”

Our common home. The third element of the pope’s new lens on Catholic social thought is the recognition that integral human development includes the protection of the earth, our common home. Latin America is the home of Amazonia, a region so rich in its biodiversity that it is literally vital for the preservation of life on earth. Francis has seen firsthand the destruction of the Amazon; there is an environmental catastrophe underway that can suffocate the earth even while it destroys ancient cultures and impoverishes vast populations.

Latin America is a prime example of how economic systems that internalize profits while externalizing costs and risks must be reformed or replaced. It is also a prime example of how deep engagement with the environment informed by the scientific consensus of the world can begin to reclaim the health of our common home. The see-judge-act method reveals an ongoing abuse of the creation that God has entrusted to us, and none of the alternative realities painted by the extractive industries of our nation can obscure that simple fact.

Pacifist roots. The final element of the new lens that Pope Francis brings to Catholic teaching on poverty, peace and the planet is the reintegration of nonviolence into the heart of Catholic teaching on war and peace. In the early church, pacifism was the dominant theme of Christian theology. For most of the church’s history, however, nonviolence has been seen as a heroic though unrealistic choice, an eccentric part of our patrimony that was displaced by St. Augustine’s powerful logic of war as last resort.

In his “World Day of Peace Message” in 2017, Pope Francis reclaimed the tradition of pacifism as a major theological current in the life of the church. He reiterated the contention of the early Christian community that Christ’s call to love of neighbor and enemy alike is, in an unrelenting way, incompatible with recourse to war. Francis teaches that the time in which Jesus lived was one of great violence, and yet he preached nonresistance. Can the church do anything less than seek to construct a powerful and realistic politics of nonviolence rooted both in reality and in the words of the Lord himself?

A Threefold Mission

The first five years of Francis’ pontificate suggest that the pope, through this new lens, has undertaken a different mission within each of the three major priorities of the Franciscan legacy.

Poverty. On the question of poverty, Pope Francis has undertaken a mission of application and renewal. Specifically, the pope has sought to enact Catholic moral teaching in the light of the forces of globalization that are transforming our economies, cultures and societies. In a very real way, Pope Francis approaches globalization with the same perspective that characterized Pope Leo XIII’s critique of industrialization in “Rerum Novarum” in 1891. Francis is under no illusion that globalization can be reversed. Rather, it is his conviction that the tremendous upheaval in economic, familial and cultural life caused by globalization requires the creation of major new structures of social justice designed to mitigate the consequences and claims of globalization that have devastated so many sectors of the human family.

The great theme of the preferential option for the poor, which has resonated in Catholic teaching since the time of Paul VI, lies at the heart of this renewal. The methodology of see-judge-act, so consonant with the Second Vatican Council’s exhortation to look carefully at the “signs of the times,” provides the pathway for meaningful reform. And the questions of participation and marginalization, so central to the social thought of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, have been amplified by the prism of exclusion that ultimately is determinative in Pope Francis’ judgments about the morality of globalization. Even refracted through the distinctive lens that Pope Francis brings to Catholic social teaching on the issue of poverty, his project is fundamentally one of continuing the long trajectory of the church’s commitment to the defense of the poor, using the rich doctrinal resources that have been forged over the past 125 years.

Peace. If the relationship between the initiatives of Pope Francis and the tradition he inherited can be seen as one of continuity and renewal in the area of economic justice and poverty, Pope Francis’ mission in the area of peace is best seen as one of recovery. On one level, Francis has continued the trajectory of the modern popes in tightening the moral requirements under just war theory for recourse to war and the formulation of nuclear policy. The pope’s bold decision last November to proclaim the very possession of nuclear weapons morally unacceptable is a sign of that continuing trajectory.

But on a more fundamental level, the initiatives of Pope Francis in the area of nonviolence and peace-building constitute a major shift in orientation in Catholic social teaching designed to truly empower the church’s ancient pacifist traditions. This shift is rooted in the see-judge-act methodology that looks to the demonstrated successes of nonviolence in civil conflicts around the globe in which violence had been tried and failed. By pointing to the viability and moral superiority of nonviolence, this recovery of the pacifist tradition provides a necessary complement to a just war tradition that must become ever more restrictive if it hopes to preserve a claim as an authentic Christian ethic.

Planet. Pope Francis’ teachings on the environment constitute a mission of neither renewal nor recovery but rather of wholesale transformation. For most of the church’s history, Catholic social teaching on the environment has reflected a theme of mastery and domination. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict both sounded a piercing alarm about the well-being of the planet in their writings about the pillaging of the earth. But it has fallen to Pope Francis, in “Laudato Si,” to construct a breathtaking theology of creation for an age in which the earth itself is imperiled.

Francis is a pope uniquely equipped to carry out this transformation. The first son of Latin America to be pope, he instinctively appreciates the richness of biodiversity as the lifeblood of the planet and has witnessed the degradation of the earth and destruction of peoples brought by rampant exploitation.

Laudato Si’” is a prayer; it is a warning; it is an affirmation of the power and beneficence of God; it is an analysis of the contending forces and bad decisions that have brought our planet to a point of deepest peril. Most of all, it is the re-creation of Catholic teaching about the nature of the human person in relation to the earth that is our common home.

The renewal, recovery and transformation that Pope Francis has launched in Catholic teachings on poverty, peace and the planet are firmly rooted in the doctrinal tradition of the church. Yet they bring the enriching perspective of the Southern church—the majority of Catholics in the world today—to bear on the themes of exclusion, pacifism, the preservation of our common home and the massive threats that globalization poses for humanity. St. Francis of Assisi must be very pleased.