By Vinnie Rotondaro
In under a year, Pope Francis has managed to rouse and inspire Catholics across the world with his calls of a “church for the poor.” He has done this without making any changes to church doctrine.
Last week, Francis continued his populist charge, releasing a powerful papal exhortation titled “Evangelii Gaudium.” The document decries economic inequality as “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation,” ideologies, like trickle down economics, that “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”
“A new tyranny is thus born,” the pope wrote, “invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”
Again and again, by virtue of his tone and contextual aim, Francis wins over many (including much of the mainstream press). Even non-believers and the disaffected have taken notice. But while much of his popularity can be attributed to his populist charm, there also seems to be an element of surprise in the public’s reaction to his papacy, as if the pope’s simple, Christ-like message of love and inclusion has come as a shock to the system – as something new, unexpected.
Why? Take a look at the agenda items addressed earlier last month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their annual meeting in Baltimore. The bishops of the richest, most powerful and increasingly unequal nation in the world, convening in a city wracked by generational poverty, talked about pornography, they discussed contraception and gay marriage, and addressed questions of minor liturgical importance. Poverty was not on the agenda.
The image offered up was that of a place where the old guard rules, where reactionary tsk-tskers inveigh on what people can and cannot do in their personal lives, where “liberal” political concerns are mentioned while “conservative” causes are crusaded over.
And if the whispers that some bishops “appear willing to wait out this pope,” or the election of the conference’s new chairman, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, a “smiling conservative” who signed the Manhattan Declaration and cannot seriously be seen as a reformer, are any indication, it doesn’t look likely this image will change any time soon.
Why does Pope Francis surprise us? He surprises us because he seems unlike so much of the hierarchy he represents.