Pope Francis and social justice

Pope Francis and social justice

Michael BURKE

Thursday, December 19, 2013

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SAINT Francis of Assisi introduced the practice of having replicas of nativity scenes at Christmas to the Christian world some 800 years ago. When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope in March this year, he named himself after this man of Assisi in Italy. At the time of Pope Francis's election earlier this year, he was asked which Francis he was naming himself after, Francis of Assisi or Francis Xavier, since the new pope is the first Jesuit ever to be pope. He replied that he was naming himself after Francis of Assisi.

As we approach Christmas, it is worthwhile to remember that Christians are sent to give the good news to the poor as seen in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4. Indeed, the replica of the nativity scene should remind us that Jesus was born in stark poverty as a sign that he had come to uplift and empower the poor.

The media has, in the way it has publicised the teachings and statements of Pope Francis, given the impression that this is a novelty to the Roman Catholic Church. But this is not so at all.

It was Pope John Paul who wrote in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Labour) reading from number 6: "The ancient world introduced its own typical differentiation of people into classes according to the type of work done. Work that demanded from the worker the exercise of physical strength, the work of muscles and hands, was considered unworthy of free men, and was therefore given to slaves. By broadening certain aspects that already belonged to the Old Testament, Christianity brought about a fundamental change of ideas in this field, taking the whole content of the Gospel message as its point of departure, especially the fact that the one who, while being God, became like us in all things [and] devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter's bench."

Numerous popes have had the same theme, and the concept that the church should have preferential option for the poor is an integral part of Roman Catholic doctrine. While Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI concentrated on doctrinal matters, the fact is that he also wrote an encyclical along the lines of social justice.

In Jamaica, the Roman Catholic Church introduced the credit unions to Jamaica in 1941. This would complement the service co-operatives established by the old Jamaica Welfare (now Social Development Commission) established by Norman Manley in 1937.

The concept of a minimum wage became law in 1975, on a resolution moved by then Prime Minister Michael Manley. It came straight from the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Modern Trends). That encyclical was written by Pope Leo XIII some 122 years ago in 1891. It spoke to the concept of a living wage.

The Manleys were voracious readers and indicated that they had read the social encyclicals of the popes. Had they been alive, although they were not Roman Catholics, they would have been the first to tell you that Pope Francis's position is nothing new and that he is only following the tradition of the popes.

And the concept of 'worker participation', which was a buzzword in the 1970s (now called employee share ownership programme, ESOP), was requested by Pope John XXIII in his encyclicals Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher, 1961) and Pacem en Terras (Peace on Earth) in 1963. In his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (People's progress) the late Pope Paul Vl wrote that we should create a world where "the poor man Lazarus can sit down at the same table with the rich man".

The Lord's Supper is re-enacted in every Roman Catholic Mass called officially the Holy Eucharist. Our understanding of the Eucharist is that the consecrated bread and wine miraculously become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in each mass. In consuming the body and blood of Christ we are all nourished by Jesus, which makes us have a certain relationship to each other by blood.

We therefore become one regardless of race or class. And this is the real message of Christmas that we will celebrate six days from today. To believe this means to abhor oppression which has been meted out in just about every ideological system known.

There was a time when the words socialism ad communism were used interchangeably and the Roman Catholic Church, in attacking communism, made reference to socialism in the same vein. But the church has explained that, in accordance with the meaning of socialism today, Roman Catholics not only can be socialists, but should be if we mean by socialism the upliftment of the poor to the point where they control economies to control their destinies.

This was explained in a 1971 Vatican document entitled Justice in the World, and also in a pastoral letter to the Roman Catholic flock of he English-speaking Caribbean in 1975 entitled Justice and Peace in a New Caribbean.

And by the way, the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to three aspects of scientific socialism or communism. These are the denial of the existence of God, the insistence on class warfare, and the suppression of all types of private property.

In any case, how could the Roman Catholic Church ever be against the empowerment of the poor when it is the biggest provider of social charity in the world? How could the Roman Catholic Church be against such concepts when the Roman Catholic Church set up credit unions in Jamaica and other parts of the world and built the first housing scheme in Jamaica at Homestead in Bamboo, St Ann, in the 1940s?

Indeed, it is difficult for me to envision a church that does not think in this way because such a church would run contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. And it would certainly run contrary to the sharing of communion which, in my understanding as a Roman Catholic, is that the body and blood of Jesus Christ make us one by participation.

The third verse of O Holy Night is: "Truly, he taught us to love one another, His law is love and His Gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother and in His name all oppression shall cease." Have a Merry Christmas when it comes next week.


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