Op-Ed

At Christmas, a pope speaks not only of generosity but of justice

Pope Francis
Pope Francis AFP/Getty Images

I should have thought it exceedingly unlikely, in my near-dotage, that I would become taken with the teachings of a Catholic priest. Like many of my faith, I have, over the decades, found it near impossible to square my membership and my conscience. But I am frank to say I’m smitten with this pope.

A former janitor, bouncer and literature teacher, Pope Francis has pressed the healing mission of his church rather than the doctrinal rigidity of his predecessors. We are marked by obligations to one another, he insists – especially to the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. Through deed and promise, he exhorts a commitment to the least of these. Who would have predicted that a single Argentinian cleric, nearing 80 years of age, could so swiftly lift, enliven and re-direct an ancient church of more than a billion members?

It is not happenstance that Francis chose as his namesake the 13th century saint from Assisi who famously dedicated his life and mission to the poor. “I prefer a Church,” the new pontiff explained, “which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, (to one) which is unhealthy from clinging to its own security.”

“How can it be, “ Francis has asked, “that it is not … a news (story) when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is … when the stock market loses two points?” Poverty is “scandal.” In a “world in which there is so much wealth, so many resources, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children.” Among “our tasks” – in brotherhood and service – is “that of giving voice to the cry of the poor.”

The pope’s call is not only to generosity, but to justice. He seeks an openness of heart that extends our arms to protect all of God’s people. We’re required “to embrace with tender affection, the whole of (mankind), especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important.” Driven by recognition of a common humanity, Francis means to trigger demands of fairness and respect for the ones in need. Seeing, in every person, the face of God. As he explained at the United Nations, “We ask for dignity, not charity.”

Nor, in Francis’ view, are his claims of fairness, obligation and membership limited to the private sphere. We are called to eliminate the structural causes of poverty. “I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life … to be protectors” of the vulnerable. In this effort, there is defining need “to oppose the relative few who exclude the majority of the world’s people … in a corruption (that) creates privileges for some and injustice for many others.”

He decries, as well, an economic transcendence rooted in the logic of profit at all costs, of giving to get, of exploitation without soul. A slavish fealty to trickle-down economic theories which assume that growth, encouraged by a free market will invariably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. The facts – for Francis – prove otherwise.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in sermons, the pope turns repeatedly to the Good Samaritan. The parable speaks of a man assaulted and left half-dead at the side of the road. People pass by, but they do not stop. They continue on their journey, indifferent to him, as if it is none of their business. How often do we turn the other way and pretend not to see? he asks.

“Only a Samaritan, a stranger, stops, lifts him up, and cares for him.” There is no indifference, no apathy, only love. The pope, Francis attests, loves everyone, rich and poor, but he is obliged to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.

In one of the most economically vibrant states, in the richest nation on earth, over a quarter of our children live in conditions of desperate poverty. Over 4 in 10 of our kids of color are poor. We have one of the fastest-rising child poverty rates in America. Almost 650,000 of our kids can’t get enough to eat. Our childhood food insecurity rate outpaces that of almost every other state. North Carolina public schools report over 28,000 homeless children among their enrollees. Re-read that sentence, if you can bear it.

Rome is far way. In every conceivable sense of the word. But as Christmas nears, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this remarkable new pope is speaking to Tar Heels.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law. He doesn’t speak for UNC.

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