Misunderstanding the papal message

Father John A. Kiley

The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States evoked a substantial amount of good will, but it also provoked an added bit of commentary on his latest encyclical on society’s care for creation, humanity’s common home. On the day of his holiness’ arrival, the Woonsocket Call featured a political cartoon of the pontiff floating aloft with angelic wings spread wide. The left-handed wing was immensely larger than the right-sided wing.

The caption read: “All Left Wing,” clearly an allusion to the Pope’s call for a more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources. Christine Flowers, sometime columnist for the Providence Journal, lamented that His Holiness was paying more attention to persons on the periphery of the Church than to persons in the Church’s pews every Sunday. Her tone indicated that Pope Francis’ concern for the alienated betrayed a certain neglect towards the faithful. The Pope can’t win! Jesus’ words about street children come easily to mind: “We sang you a happy song and you did not dance; we played you a sad tune and you did not weep.”

The ultimate slap to His Holiness came without a doubt from conservative Washington Post columnist George Will. The nationally syndicated writer fulminates at length. The Pope’s ideas are “impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary. They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak.” Will asserts that the Pontiff’s “woolly sentiments” have the intellectual tone of “fortune cookies” and he laments Francis’ “fact-free flamboyance.”

Other writers have taken exception to Pope Francis’ cautions about the Western world’s market economy as expressed both in his recent encyclical and in his voluminous statements made during Vatican audiences. And, let’s be honest, the market economy prevalent in the United States today has done alright by most of those reading the Rhode Island Catholic at this moment. Yet the Pope, whether he is an accomplished economist or not, is right to draw attention to the inequalities that exist within Western society as well as within the larger, emerging societies that constitute the planet. In his recent encyclical Pope Francis wisely quotes his predecessor Pope Saint John Paul II as he echoes pontiffs going back to Leo XIII when he writes, “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them. It is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favor only a few.”

The expression “social mortgage” first employed by Pope Saint John Paul II and here re-employed by Pope Francis is an insightful turn of phrase. Persons of good will may certainly enjoy private property with no compunction. But just as a mortgage on a house must be paid to the original lender so a social mortgage on a person’s earthly possessions is due to the original lender, namely God the Creator. Mankind pays off its social mortgage on earthly possessions by using those possessions not only for one’s own comfort but for the good of one’s neighbor as well. The earth is a “shared inheritance” so the right to private property, while legitimate, is subordinate to the universal purpose of earthly goods. Calling into question the unjust habits of some humans, the Pope reminds all that God never intended that creation should favor “only a few.”

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, the Christian world is reminded of how an otherwise moral person can be oblivious to the needs of his neighbor. A young man eager for a virtuous life (“What must I do to be saved?”) turns away sad when he is challenged to share his worldly goods with the needy (“for he had many possessions.”) Jesus acknowledges the insensitivity, the thoughtlessness, even the hardness of heart, that can distance the wealthy from the needy. “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Comfortable in their own surroundings, the wealthy can easily ignore the “social mortgage” that God the creator has placed on a person’s worldly goods. Alertness to society’s critical needs is really alertness to God himself “since God created the world for everyone.” Ignoring the poor is ignoring God.