Pope Francis made major waves this week for a quote about atheists, though much of the hub-bub missed the larger point. While many fixated on the idea that he might have been suggesting that those who do not believe in God could still get to heaven, the truly revolutionary aspect of his message was its inclusivity, guided by a simple maxim – just do good and we will meet up in the end.
The Pope’s effort to distance Catholic focus from shared particulars of faith and redirect it toward the religion’s idea that, "the Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics, everyone,” and that “all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil,” is indeed refreshing.
Now, what exactly constitutes “good” has been the subject of debate – and even warfare – since the early days of man. Still, I can’t help but think that approaching justice from this perspective, one that lacks the most divisive aspect of organized religion – that if you don’t worship at my altar you’re doomed and therefore largely irrelevant – is much more likely to arrive at a shared consensus as to what is just.
I think most people truly do believe that mankind is endowed with the ability to know good from evil, even if they disagree on who or what endowed us with it. In fact, it seems more often than not, that we end up disagreeing over whether things that nearly all religious texts would describe as evil are nonetheless justified for one reason or another. Again, I think this is a more difficult exercise when we focus on such a simple maxim, rather than the more elaborate ideas that tend to divide us.
This is not the first time Pope Francis has shaken things up. In recent years, so-called prosperity theology has become more mainstream than perhaps any other sort of religous social doctrine. Millions of books have been sold on the message that God wants to confer financial blessings upon the worthy, while ironically doing just that for those who hawk the God wants you to be rich and here’s what you can do about it message.
When his Holiness criticized a “savage capitalism,” and called for reforms of a “profit at any cost” system and a return to the virtues of generosity and charity, many who claimed to be in his flock saw their wool ruffled. But while his camel and the eye of a needle talk didn’t go over all that well with some, it really shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise.
As soon as the new Pope was announced, a close friend of mine who is a theologian predicted that it signaled what he saw as a long-overdue return to the social justice components of Catholic Social Teaching, which traces back to the 19th century and Pope Leo XIII, as well as well as some of the earlier works of both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to ever reach the the Papacy. Social justice is a primary emphasis of the order, and in some ways, his message this week was a logical extension of the ecumenical principle of Christian unity to the unity of mankind. Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, taking the papal name Francis, for St. Francis Assisi, a man who renounced a life of privilege and took a vow of poverty, also sent a strong message.
Of course, such messages are bound to be taken out of context and used to attack someone seeking to upend a status quo that others find favorable. He’s already been called a socialist and major publications have gone on to pen articles defending “free markets” as eliminators of poverty, while suggesting that his comments demonstrate ignorance of market realities.
Only Pope Francis wasn’t condemning free markets, just those in them who turn a blind eye to the tremendous inequalities that have been systematically expanded in our modern economy (which is most prominently marked by rigged markets) and do not necessarily think it is a bad thing that we are so quickly moving toward the sort of misery-inducing stratification that plagued the era which spawned Catholic Social Teaching in the first place.
The Pope has a long row to hoe in terms of rehabilitating a tattered Catholic Church or returning it to its former position of influence, but that’s not really the point. By pioneering an effort to restore some of its most universal virtues, while distancing his ranks from the exclusionary philosophies that have often hampered it, he is doing something far more useful and important. In the meantime, we might all focus on those three beautiful words – just do good.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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