Historically speaking, Christians always have been obsessed with debating the proper sources of teaching authority. One of the towering issues in the Protestant Reformation, for instance, was whether the Bible alone or also Church authority can claim to provide binding truth about God’s will.
The contemporary leader of the Catholic side in that argument, Pope Francis, certainly recognizes the importance of both Scripture and tradition. Yet it’s also clear that at the personal level, he prizes yet another font of wisdom with an almost equally spiritual fervor.
In a word, Francis takes his cues from the poor.
At the moment Francis is in Africa on a six-day visit that’s taken him to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. From a news point of view, the stop in the CAR is the headline since it marks the first time a modern-day pontiff has set foot in an active war zone.
In terms of insight into the pontiff’s mind and heart, however, one of his last stops in Kenya was arguably the most revealing moment of the journey.
On Friday morning, Francis traveled to a slum in Nairobi called Kangemi. With no sewage system and limited electricity, it’s home to roughly 150,000 people congested in a small valley with steep slopes rolling down to the Nairobi River.
Meetings with the poor are a regular feature of papal travel, and news reports from Francis’ visit on Friday focused on his denunciation of conditions in the slum, such as his insistence that access to safe drinking water is “a basic and universal human right.”
Of course, Francis has made statements like that countless times. While they remain urgently relevant, they don’t really add much to understanding who the pontiff is and what he stands for.
Looking more closely, however, Francis didn’t go to Kangemi simply to commiserate with Africa’s poor. He went to acknowledge what he called “the wisdom found in poor neighborhoods.”
He praised the poor for what he called their “stubborn resistance” to what’s inauthentic or secondary, saying they cling to “Gospel values which an opulent society, anesthetized by unbridled consumption, would seem to have forgotten.”
Francis complained that a “language of exclusion” generally “disregards or seems to ignore” this wisdom, treating the poor as problems, or objects of relief, rather than as sources of insight.
He quoted a document from a group of priests in his native Argentina who serve in what Argentines call the villas miserias, meaning the “villas of misery,” the vast slums that ring their major cities.
A poor community, according to the document, “can offer something to these times in which we live. It is expressed in values such as solidarity, giving one’s life for others, preferring birth to death, providing Christian burial to one’s dead; finding a place for the sick in one’s home, sharing bread with the hungry (for ‘there is always room for one more seat at the table’), showing patience and strength when faced with great adversity, and so on.”
Although Francis didn’t say so, he could have pointed out that Argentine priests cultivated those insights because he directed them to go to the villas while he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and set an example by spending a significant share of his own time there.
“The path of Jesus began on the peripheries,” he said Friday. “It goes from the poor and with the poor, toward others.”
Francis reinforced that message on Saturday in another session with the poor in Nalukolongo, Uganda, where he visited a home for more than 100 disabled, elderly, destitute, and vulnerable people of all faiths and ethnicities.
It’s striking that Francis’ determination to listen to the poor often leads him to counter-intuitive conclusions.
In his remarks on Friday, Francis took issue with the unjust distribution of land, the lack of education and health care for the poor, and the moral outrage formed by “abandoned, filthy and run-down peripheries” – all causes congenial to the political left.
Yet the pontiff also objected to what he called “new forms of colonialism.” As a case in point, he cited the fact that “countries are frequently pressured to adopt policies typical of the culture of waste, like those aimed at lowering the birth rate” – an objection typically found on the cultural and political right.
The reference to new forms of colonialism is a revised form of a phrase that’s become part of the pope’s stock rhetoric, which is “ideological colonialism,” meaning the claim that Western governments and NGOs are trying to coerce poor nations to adopt liberal policies on population control and sexual morality as a condition of development assistance.
Combining these positions defies the conventional logic of Western politics, but for Francis they’re not the product of a platform, but rather the experience of hearing the poor.
Critics will perhaps say there’s a danger with Pope Francis of romanticizing poverty, and one can obviously debate the specific conclusions he arrives at from his own experience of poor people.
What’s not in dispute, however, is that for this pope, poverty is a source of spiritual and moral truth as compelling as any dogmatic declaration or ecumenical council.
If you want to understand Francis’ agenda, in other words, you don’t need to Google the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Code of Canon Law. You’d be better off heading to some place like Kangemi.
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As a reminder, Crux’s Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín is on the papal plane with Francis for his Africa trip and is providing daily coverage on Crux. You can also stay up-to-date by following her on Twitter at @inesanma.
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Here are two other big-picture observations from Pope Francis’ swing through Kenya and Uganda, before his daring visit to the Central African Republic.
How determined is Francis to make that stop, despite obvious security concerns? On the outbound flight to Africa. he visited the cockpit of his Alitalia jet and told the pilot that if he didn’t feel comfortable landing in the CAR, he should just give Francis a parachute, because one way or another, he’s going.
The new name of colonialism
Whenever a pope travels to Africa, there tend to be two storylines in which the Western media is especially interested:
- HIV/AIDS and the Church’s ban on condoms
- Anti-gay laws and the Church’s position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage
At least as of Saturday, Francis really hadn’t directly engaged either one.
On HIV/AIDS, he did visit a center in Kenya for a treatment program operated by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay movement in the Catholic Church, and on Saturday he heard the testimony of a 24-year-old Ugandan woman who lost both parents to the disease and was born with it herself. The pontiff told her that prayer can transform “bad experiences into hope.”
On gay rights, Francis has been basically mum. Even on Saturday, when he celebrated the memory of a group of Ugandan martyrs remembered in part for rebuffing a 19th-century king’s homosexual advances, Francis didn’t refer to that aspect of their legacy. (For the record, some Ugandans dispute the story.)
In the absence of any fresh papal comments, here’s an observation about how many African Christians think about these issues.
A century and a half ago, Christianity often was seen as a colonial force in Africa. According to one traditional version of the story of those Ugandan martyrs, 23 of whom were Anglicans and 22 Catholics, they were put to death by King Mwanga of the Buganda kingdom in 1886 because they were suspected of being agents of European colonizers.
Today, plenty of African Christians – as well as African Muslims, followers of indigenous African religions, and others – see themselves instead as the victims of colonialism, in this case of the cultural sort. They believe Western governments and NGOs are attempting to compel Africa to abandon its traditional values on issues such as population control and homosexuality as a condition of development aid.
That was the sense of the pope’s reference to “new forms of colonialism” in Kenya, quoted above, echoing a sentiment that one hears remarkably frequently from Africa’s Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders.
Without getting into the rights and wrongs of that impression, a seemingly objective observation would be the following: One will never make headway discussing gay rights or population control in Africa without grasping the way that historical memories of colonialism, combined with contemporary resentments about imbalances of wealth and power, color the discussion.
To put the point simply, for many Africans, secularism is the new name of colonialism. It often seems that the harder the West pushes, the more determined Africans become to resist.
‘All in’ on climate change
As of this week, there have been a grand total of 248 overseas papal trips in the modern era. By now there’s a clear formula for these outings, which means exceptions tend to stand out.
One such departure came on Thursday, Thanksgiving day in the States, when Francis went to a United Nations compound in Nairobi, Kenya. It was the first time a pope has ever visited a UN site in the developing world, and he used the stop to deliver an address ahead of a UN summit on climate change that opens Monday in Paris.
“We are faced with a great political and economic obligation,” Francis said of that gathering. He suggested Africa is the right backdrop to make the case, home to “richly biodiverse lungs of our planet” such as the Congo basins, and also a continent that suffers environmental calamities such as deforestation and desertification.
He called on the summit in Paris, known as COP21, to adopt “a new energy system which depends on minimal use of fossil fuels, aims at greater efficiency, and makes use of energy sources with little or no carbon content.”
What should we take away from the pope’s unusual decision to add a visit to a UN venue to his normal travel schedule – not coincidentally, the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Program?
In a phrase, that Francis is “all in” on the push to fight climate change. It would be “catastrophic,” the pontiff warned, if that doesn’t happen.
“We are confronted with a choice which cannot be ignored: either to improve or to destroy the environment,” he said in Nairobi, echoing language he used in September when addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Francis endorsed what he called “legitimate means of pressure” to influence the outcome, basically a thumbs-up to lobbying campaigns.
(One such “means of pressure” came on Saturday, when Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes presented a Catholic Climate Petition to the Paris summit with more than 800,000 signatures, including Cardinals Sean P. O’Malley and Theodore McCarrick in the United States, pleading with political leaders to “drastically cut carbon emissions.”)
Likewise, Francis took a shot at global warming skeptics, warning against “manipulating information” to protect the “plans and projects” of special interest groups.
Given all the causes a pope might embrace, one has to ask why climate change appears so paramount for Francis.
In a nutshell, it’s because he sees the environment as the leading edge of a contemporary “throw-away culture,” which also sweeps up the poor, the elderly, migrants and refugees, the unborn, and other categories of humanity in its disregard.
What Francis has confirmed in Africa is that he sees Paris as a potential turning point toward a greater “culture of care,” which he insisted is not an “idealistic utopia” but rather a “realistic prospect,” and he’s determined not to miss any opportunity to shove history in that direction.