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Commentary: Pope Francis defies easy labeling

by on December 08, 2013 1:30 AM

“The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike.”

It’s safe to say that the above is not the most quoted line from the pope’s most recent and most talked about essay, Evangelii Gaudium, which includes some pointed criticism of late capitalism.

“If we don’t love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we’re going to go to Hell,” Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput said in a 2011 interview. In an e-book, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan repeated the line, seeing it as a point of continuity between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor.

According to most church observers, Chaput’s one of the most “conservative” bishops in the country. Generally that means he talks about “The Gospel of Life,” and the necessity of following Catholic teaching in all facets of our lives, including politics. He also offers pastoral guidance on the death penalty and immigration and, yes, poverty.

Meanwhile, the leftist talking heads at MSNBC have fallen all over themselves to proclaim Francis as one of their own. And Fox News has even joined the fray, comparing the pope to Obama in an op-ed posted on the channel’s website.

All this begs the question: Who is Pope Francis? Are our efforts to neatly label him doing both the man and his message a disservice?

Resist the temptation, cautions Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, “to fit (Pope Francis) into ideological and ecclesial categories.”

The cardinal, probably considered leftward of some of the earlier bishops named, was speaking at the start of a recent event at Georgetown University, “The Pope and the Poor.” The forum, presented as a dialogue sponsored by the new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, was held in the shadow of “The Gospel of Joy,” a long papal intrachurch document that echoed many themes we’ve heard in the early papacy of Pope Francis.

It’s about “loving attentiveness,” and talks of our obligations to life and marriage and even religious freedom. But you wouldn’t know that from the headlines, which are all about Obamacare, lawsuits and partisan jockeying.

This evasion of the pope’s true message is a reminder of how important communication is and how challenging it can be in the age of Twitter and our limited attention spans. But the effort to get beyond all that is one we need to make.

Francis is reminding us of our Christian obligation to physically perform works of mercy. “To take care of the poor, to visit the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to tend to the sick,” Dolan reflects. This is what pastors do, and what every parishioner should do, as well.

There’s a book by a bevy of Dominican priests, one now an archbishop in the upper realms of the Vatican. It’s called “The Love That Never Ends,” and it contends that “to share in the unending love of the triune God is the destiny of every human person in Christ.” This is the pope’s message.

It’s not a political agenda — it’s an evangelical one.

If you have actual hope — that there is endless mercy and justice for those who seek it, that there is a redeeming love available for all, that your neighbor truly is your brother — there’s got to be a joy about you, one you’re going to want to share in service, fellowship and charity. That’s not condemning you to hell for having strong opinions about the priorities of the federal budget, but reminding us all of the meaning of words and lives.

And if you believe it — that the human person is a beloved treasure of the Creator — it is the perfect gift to bring joy to the world.



Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. Her column is distributed by Universal Uclick. Email her at klopez@nationalreview.com.
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