Pope Francis’ intense interest in Catholic social teaching has been clear from the first moments of his pontificate. To begin to understand that, one only has to look as far as his name.
Just days after his March 13 election, the pope offered the reasons for choosing the name Francis in his first major papal audience, and they have everything to do with the social teachings of the Church. In an address to the 6,000 journalists who covered the conclave, Pope Francis explained that during the election in the Sistine Chapel, his friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes, seated beside him, encouraged him.
“And when the votes reached two-thirds … he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”
In that handful of sentences, the pope mentions three central elements of Catholic social teaching: the poor, war and peace, and the environment. Let’s consider each.
Church for the poor
Pope Francis’ call for “a Church which is poor and for the poor” is as succinct and effective a description of Church teaching on the preferential option of the poor as you’ll find. That principle says that people living in poverty are to receive the special concern of the Church and society and that a primary question in approaching all social and personal decisions should be, “How will it affect the poor?”
Pope Francis’ special concern for the poor has surprised no one who knew him already. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio spearheaded what one Catholic journalist has called “a pastoral revolution” in the slums of that city. Under his leadership, parishes in those desperate regions blossomed into vibrant centers of faith and social services.
This same pastoral interest was expressed immediately after his election as pope, when he asked his fellow Argentines not to travel to Rome for his inauguration, but rather to give the money they would have spent on the trip to the poor.
It’s reflected in his thinking on a more theoretical level, too. Less than a week after his election, in an address to representatives of other churches and religions, Pope Francis identified what he views as “one of the most dangerous threats of our times.” What threat earns such strong words? It is, he said, “the vision of the human person with a single dimension to prevail, according to which man is reduced to what he produces and to what he consumes.” That very consumerism has long been viewed critically by modern popes in their presentations of Catholic social teaching.
Man of peace
The pope’s public words and actions in these first weeks of his papacy have not yet included much elaboration on the topic of war and peace. But when that comes, it will not be surprising, since he revealed in that early address to journalists that the wars that burden our world were on his mind even as the votes for his papal election were still being counted. How remarkable to know this, and to know that these thoughts compelled him to choose the name of the saint who is known more than any other as “the man of peace.”
A long line of his recent predecessors — Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI — have made dramatic efforts in both word and action on behalf of peace. At a time when violence still so often seems to hold sway in the world, what will we see in the pontificate of the man who chose to name himself for the saint who is said to have prayed, “Make me an instrument of Your peace”?
“We don’t have a very good relationship with creation, do we?” In that initial explanation of his choice of name, Pope Francis posed this unsettling question to those in attendance, and he poses it to us, too.
His concern for the environment emerged more clearly in the homily he preached days later, at the Mass that formally inaugurated his pontificate (on the feast of St. Joseph, protector of the Holy Family). Francis explained “the vocation of being a ‘protector’” to which all people are called. He said that besides being protectors of one another, “It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St. Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live…. Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”
Pope Benedict XVI’s important statements and actions in the name of protecting the environment earned him the nickname “the green pope.” But as the effects of climate change become clearer and more damaging, especially to the poor of the planet, it’s not hard to imagine a pope who teaches and develops Catholic social teaching on the environment in some important and dramatic new ways. Early signs suggest Francis may be that pope.
There are many parts of a pope’s job description besides proclaiming Catholic social teaching. But so far, it seems to be one in which Pope Francis takes an especially keen interest.
Barry Hudock is the author of “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” (Liguori, $16.99). He blogs at barryhudock.wordpress.com.