I finished reading Evangelii Guadium, the first written offering by Pope Francis, which translated in English is The Joy of the Gospel. Technically it is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, a couple of pegs below an encyclical but pretty potent as a roadmap for the direction of the Catholic Church. It is fascinating reading, although a bit tedious, and while excerpts have been discussed widely among the media unless one reads it in its entirety it may simply come across to critics and skeptics as a radical left-wing if not socialist screed. Now I am certainly not one driven to pore over papal pronouncements, but the compelling analysis of the contemporary social condition is a stark counterbalance to the relative dearth of what passes for analysis either in the media or political arenas. It is refreshing yet disturbing in its depiction of reality and his attempt at offering hope that mankind can rise to the occasion to remedy the social ills of poverty, lack of opportunity, violence, injustice, inequality, short-term thinking, and the abuses of the free market leaves one at least grasping for solutions.
The intent of the document is to offer direction to a church and religion that has long ago succumbed to scandalous reports of abuse, hypocrisy, rigidity, and intolerance. For many non-practicing Catholics, me included the inability of the Church or it's preaching evangelists to offer a practical and inspirational path in the contemporary world that truly captures the essence of the teachings of Jesus Christ has suffocated desires to continue to follow it or them. Make no mistake, the Pope does not capitulate on all matters of concern, such as abortion or the inclusion of women into the priesthood, but the treatise offers a powerfully compassionate attack on materialism and an economic order that has catapulted injustice and inequality to historic levels. He even takes a swing, figuratively of course not literally, at the environmental destruction that is being wrought on future generations in the name of profits for the few and comes close to calling it a sin.
Witness the Pope's treatment on the idolatry of money:
The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.
As environmental activists continue to gain momentum in their attempts to educate the public on the adverse short- and long-term consequences of a continued reliance upon fossil fuels as an economic paradigm and the massive exploitation to secure these fossil fuels, they now have an advocate in the Vatican.
But at the same time, the ever-present financial clout of the oil and gas industry continues to secure political support for the extraction of every last drop of fossil fuels that can be found to be economically viable in order to enrich their obscene profit margins. Political leaders like President Obama (who has inexplicably mangled his environmental position to include any and all sources of energy on a level playing field) and Governor Jerry Brown (the Jesuit-trained intellectual giant who has somehow lost his grasp of the fundamental tenet of sustainability and is actively pursuing an energy program that will devastate the very goals he so proudly proclaims to support when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change) have become cheerleaders for Sarah Palin's "drill, baby, drill" sloganeering. I would recommend this reading to both of these leaders.
But Pope Francis is most compelling in his treatment of the poor. He states that:
Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape...the culture of prosperity deadens us...man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
And a final thrusting lung of the gladiator's sword is leveled at those self-professed holy-rollers that populate the Tea Party wing of the conservative movement whose worship of the false idol of the free market cloud any sense of community or compassion by stating that "we can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market." Trickle-down theories of economics never have and never will address the underlying social ills, violence, desperation, fear and anger that are byproducts of an increasingly bi-furcated society of haves and have-nots. In the ultimate insult to ultra-right-wing orthodoxy the Pope outlines the need for an effective role of government and politics as a way to counteract the excesses of capitalism:
Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good...it is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education, and healthcare.
Yes there is an important and effective role for government in curbing the excesses of a free market run amok. The nonsensical notion that government is the problem not the solution finally needs to be put to rest. Especially when adherents of this wayward proposition do all in their power to ensure that they populate the government with folks who wish it to fail.
Evangelli Guadium may be the most important document delineating the current state of affairs and the cataclysmic unbalance that is ripping modern societies apart across the globe. And it is brought to you by the leader of the Catholic Church, an institution not necessarily known for its forthright diagnoses of financial and political dysfunction nor adherence of radical change throughout the last two thousand years. But the seriousness of its tone and eloquence of its diagnosis bears equally serious discussion and debate in the halls of power in Capitols all across the globe.
So on this celebration of Thanksgiving here in the United States I am thankful to you, Pope Francis, for attempting to draw focus on these issues in a forceful and forthright way. I implore you to continue in your efforts to enlighten societies far and wide on the dangers of human isolation and debasement as a direct result of economic and governmental policies that reinforce unchecked enrichment of the few at the expense of the many. This is far more than a religious tome, it is a philosophical treatise. It may even force me to reevaluate my own rupture with the Church. So as not to get carried away, even though the Pope is supposed to be infallible the document is not perfect, but it certainly is a powerfully important starting point for discussion.