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New Pope may silence critics, show concern for the poor

Concern for the poor could mark papacy

May 25, 2013 

I am still trying to figure out the new pope, Francis I.

Initially, I was very skeptical and even negative about his election. After all he was carrying all that baggage from Argentina's "dirty war" which made me see him as just another right-winger in the tradition of his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. In an op-ed here, I called for his resignation.

However, I've come to question my rush to judgment.

True, the new pope faltered with early missteps regarding women. He seemed to reiterate Benedict XVI's admonition to focus more on contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage, rather than on issues of social justice for the poor and electoral politics. He even warned a group of sisters against becoming "spinsters" or "old maids" (depending on the translation) rather than fruitful celibates.

But then he went to that women's prison on Holy Thursday and drew fire from conservatives for including women among those whose feet he washed that day. I concluded that the jury is still out concerning Francis and women. Like most of us males, he clearly has room to grow.

As I wait for the jury's verdict, two recent incidents have led me toward a more positive evaluation in the court of my own mind.

To begin with, Leonardo Boff, a leading liberation theologian who had been silenced by the Ratzinger-Wojtyla team, surprised me by his own positive assessment. He even identified the new pope as a "field" liberation theologian as opposed to a "desk" theologian. Despite his reservations in the past about liberation theology, Bergoglio, Boff said, was truly committed to the poor.

Boff hoped that the Argentinian might change Vatican policy of suspicion and rejection over the last 30 years about the "preferential option for the poor" so central in the thought of activists committed to the welfare of the world's poor majority.

Then, last week a second occurrence made me think Boff might have a point. The pontiff made some surprisingly critical remarks about capitalism and ethics to a group of new ambassadors to the Vatican:

• The wealth gap between rich and poor is completely unacceptable.

• It is caused by unfettered markets which reduce people to consumers subordinate to material production.

• Free markets are heartless, inhumane and idolatrous.

• Remedying that problem necessitates government interference in the marketplace and prioritizing human welfare and the common good over untargeted economic growth.

• Avoidance of these responsibilities makes governments complicit with the robbery from the poor who are the true owners of the resources of God's creation.

• Economics and social justice should not be understood as standing in opposition to one another, but as mutually nourishing.

I find those words encouraging. The quotes come from a new pope who, as Boff notes, has demonstrated his concern for the poor in practical ways, and has embodied a preference for simple living, And that might be sufficient reason to hope that the pope's words will define his papacy.

The jury's still out. I await word from the pulpit.

Mike Rivage-Seul is a former Catholic priest and former professor of Peace and Social Justice at Berea College. He blogs at http://mikerivageseul.wordpress.com

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