In the steps of St Francis

Mon, Dec 2, 2013, 01:00

By his deeds and words since his election to the papacy last March, Pope Francis has demonstrated that, aged 76, he is not a transitional pope. He has chosen to lead by example. He has dispensed with much of the pomp and circumstance of papal ceremony and favoured a modest, mendicant life style – as befits a follower of St Francis. And in his latest address, Pope Francis has set out a bold manifesto for his pontificate and for a church beset by a crisis of faith and authority.

The pope wishes to move the Catholic church away from a narrow preoccupation with some areas of continuing controversy – relating to sex and marriage – and towards a broader concern about issues of inequality and social justice. His primary focus is on the poor; on bringing the church closer to them so that it may be evangelised by the poor and inspired by their suffering.

Pope Francis has highlighted unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny”, one that global leaders must confront in the fight against poverty and increasing inequality. The pontiff, in his wide-ranging exhortation has afflicted the comfortable by appealing to their consciences. And he has sought to comfort the afflicted in their difficulties by boldly expressing solidarity with the dispossessed.

Pope Francis’s concerns are widely shared, and not just within the ranks of the Catholic church. Globally, disparities of income and wealth between rich and poor have greatly widened over recent decades. Inequality has worsened. In the US, incomes of the top one per cent of earners grew by almost one third from 2009 to 2012, compared to a mere 0.4 per cent increase for the other 99 per cent. And China, a communist country where managed capitalism has flourished under a totalitarian rule, no fewer than 83 dollar billionaires were among the delegates to its parliament this year.

Winston Churchill’s description of democracy as the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried, also applies to capitalism. How its excesses are best regulated and controlled to reduce income inequality and to enhance social cohesion is a problem long awaiting a political solution – one that papal rhetoric is ill-equipped to offer. Certainly, Pope Francis’s call on rich people to share their wealth has already found an echo in society. Warren Buffett, the legendary US investor, Bill Gates and Chuck Feeney, the Irish-American benefactor, are exemplars of “giving while living” philanthropy. Mr Feeney, a secular St Francis, has given billions of dollars back to society, much of it to Irish causes.

If Pope Francis has surpassed the expectations of many to date, he has so far disappointed in just one regard. Clerical sex abuse remains the great stain on the Catholic church’s character. How Francis deals with it will define his papacy.

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