On social justice, Francis isn’t rethinking so much as recycling

On social justice, Francis isn’t rethinking so much as recycling

As Pope Francis prepares for his trip to the United States next month, there’s been a great deal of attention to a recent dip in his US approval ratings, which most observers link to two developments: His encyclical letter calling for dramatic action to fight global warming and climate change,

As Pope Francis prepares for his trip to the United States next month, there’s been a great deal of attention to a recent dip in his US approval ratings, which most observers link to two developments: His encyclical letter calling for dramatic action to fight global warming and climate change, Laudato Si’, and his fiery anti-capitalist comments during a July trip to Latin America.

In that spirit, here’s a quick quiz to test one’s knowledge of traditional papal teaching on both those issues. In each case, there’s a quote followed by a series of multiple choice options as to which pope said it.

1. Quote: “The hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few, so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”

  • A. Leo XIII
  • B. Pius XII
  • C. John Paul II
  • D. Francis

2. Quote: “Both Capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves …. This ideological promise has been proved false. The facts have clearly demonstrated it.”

  • A. Pius XI
  • B. Paul VI
  • C. Benedict XVI
  • D. Francis

3. Quote: “We must encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading. Man is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward’, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss.”

  • A. Benedict XV
  • B. John Paul II
  • C. Benedict XVI
  • D. Francis

4. Quote: “What of a regime in which Capitalism is dominant? …. You know its characteristic signs, and you yourselves labor under the burden it imposes: the excessive crowding of the population into the cities; the ever-growing and all-invading power of big business; the difficult and precarious condition of other industries, especially the crafts and even more especially agriculture; the disquieting spread of unemployment.”

  • A. John XXIII
  • B. Leo XIII
  • C. Pius XII
  • D. Francis

The correct answers are A, C, B, and C, meaning Popes Leo XIII, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Pius XII respectively.

Readers with good radar for rhetorical conceits will have noticed that in no case was the proper response “Pope Francis,” and probably have figured out where this is heading: While there are many innovative aspects to this papacy, Francis’ social oratory is actually among his least creative features.

That’s not to say he isn’t adding some original details, just as previous popes did, but at the big-picture level, his teaching on social justice is about continuity, not rupture.

To put the point differently, if some Americans disapprove of Francis because of his positions on the environment and the economy, then logically they should have rejected every pope since at least Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum.

The real question is not why Francis is taking these positions. It’s rather why people react so strongly, whereas basically the same stances often seemed to be ignored or glossed over when taken by other pontiffs.

Biographical, political, and media dynamics

As the first pope from the developing world, Francis brings a special preoccupation with poverty to the job, in the same way the early phases of John Paul’s papacy were focused on communism and Benedict’s on relativism. Every pope has to ponder the providential logic for which they were put in a position to lead, investing their time and treasure where they think they stand the best shot at making a difference.

The contrast between Francis and his predecessors on both the environment and the economy, therefore, isn’t so much substance as emphasis.

Moreover, Francis strikes a broad cross-section of global leaders and opinion makers as politically consequential in a way that hasn’t been the case since the role John Paul II played in the end of the Cold War.

In the past, it was easier to dismiss papal teaching on the poor or nature as pious rhetoric. Now it’s possible that Francis could influence UN summits on climate change and global development, or that he could inspire governments in the developing world (perhaps especially Latin America, through his advocacy of the patria grande, meaning continental integration) to be more assertive in terms of global policies on trade and environmental protection.

While it’s possible to disagree with the pope, it’s become more difficult to ignore him.

Finally, Francis’ language on environmental and economic justice stirs reaction because it’s consistent with the media image created for him as a progressive reformer.

When public figures play to the script they’ve been assigned, their words and deeds get attention. When they defy that narrative, the typical response is to treat whatever they said or did as a puzzling exception, and thus to play it down.

As a result, when Benedict XVI spoke on abortion or homosexuality, his words had an echo because they fit the image of a stern cultural conservative. When he spoke on ecology or poverty, the reaction instead was generally confusion, which in an instantaneous news cycle is often a prescription for moving on to something else.

(Interestingly, that was true despite the fact that populist anti-capitalism actually has deeper roots in Benedict’s gene pool than in Francis’. Benedict’s great-uncle, Georg Ratzinger, was a 19th-century Catholic monsignor with a strong record of political and social engagement. He was twice elected to the Bavarian and the federal legislatures and helped found a political party, the Bauerbund, which represented poor farmers against large industrial concerns, supporting progressive social causes such as child labor laws and minimum wages.)

In terms of Pope Francis’ impending visit to the United States, it’s clearly legitimate for Americans to question and debate the positions he outlines on all manner of issues, including the environment and the economy. As the pontiff himself has conceded, it’s not as if the Catholic Church can claim specialized expertise in those arenas.

Yet it’s important for Americans to be clear that these positions didn’t originate with Francis, and they likely won’t end with him either. They are not a personal idée fixe, but rather a more-or-less unbroken papal tradition stretching back more than 200 years.

When it comes to social justice, in other words, Francis isn’t rethinking. If you’ll pardon the eco-pun, it’s more like he’s recycling.

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