Reflections on the program for the reform of the Catholic Church

The apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” which was published end of last year by Pope Francis is a true “awakening” call. The document is not only addressed to the 1,2 billion catholic believers within the Catholic Church, its priests, bishops, cardinals and monks to engage in the spirit of the Joy of the Gospel in a new “evangelization”. It is also addressed to the responsible leaders in politics, economics and culture around the world. The Pope’s paper identifies the main challenges which contemporary societies around are confronted with. At the same time it is strongly criticizing those unhuman forms of “predatory capitalism” which have led to a system of economic exclusion and which negates the essence of man.

During the last weeks the paper has provoked a strong debate in particular among economists around the world. Their main argument being that the Pope is wrong to criticize greedy capitalism, since “egoism” and “greed” are the constituent elements of capitalism in line with Adam Smith’s “Theory of moral sentiments”.

The paper reflects upon the different impulses which were given by the Bishops’ Synods over the course of the last 2 years; above all the Bishops’ Synod October 2012, which was devoted to the debate about the new evangelization drive which the Catholic Church must engage in.  They called at that time for a more “mission”- oriented church which – as also the various bishop synods in Asia, Africa and Latin America made clear – do take into account the specific culture and situation of the peoples around the globe.

What’ s needed in short is not more “administrative” structures but “engagement” of those who are in positions of responsibility in the church as well as of each individual citizen in his society: a permanent and active mission.

Economy must serve man

One of the main guidelines of the paper is the Pope’s call to integrate the “poor” and the “excluded”. In Paragraph 55 the pope underlines that the financial crisis which we suffer from today is in its origin an “anthropological crisis”: “One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.” Those new fetishisms and new forms of modern capitalism have created around the globe an ever widening gap between rich and poor and produced a catastrophic debt spiral.

In the third chapter of his paper the pope calls for the “integration of the poor”. In paragraph 191 he makes specific reference to a document which was passed by the Brazilian bishops in April 2002:“ ‘We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights. Seeing their poverty, hearing their cries and knowing their sufferings, we are scandalized because we know that there is enough food for everyone and that hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income. The problem is made worse by the generalized practice of wastefulness’.” (Conferencia Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil, document “Exigencias evangelistas e etricas da miseria e da fome”; April 2002).

When the Pope speaks about the “option for the poor” he does not mean any specific charitable program or aid packages for the poor.  For him the “option for the poor” represents the central idea of the Gospel, the idea that God became poor in order to enrich man. The love for the poor is the basis to fight for justice and peace in society.

An economy which “serves man” must be based on the principles of “human dignity”, the “common good”, “subsidiarity” and “solidarity”. These are principles which are valid for each nation in the world. The problem is however that many state leaders only talks rhetorically about the need for social justice and human dignity. These are mere words which in reality don’t mean anything for them.

The Pope elaborates four aspects which must be he considers as central elements of his theological/ philosophical exhortation:

1. “Time is greater than space” (222): There is a constant tension between fullness and limitation. Man lives from one moment to the next, but at the same time there is a utopia, something which opens for man a new horizon of time. If we live according to this concept of time, we are not driven by the hope to find “immediate results” but we learn to stand through and endure difficult situations with “patience” (223). Time thus transforms space into a constant “process” of development, a progressing chain. And this creates a new dynamic in society.

2. “Unity prevails over conflict” (226). By getting involved in conflicts man often loses perspective and people become prisoners of conflict. Conflicts must be seen instead as a way to look for a solution on a “higher level.” Conflicts thus often can serve as basis out of which new forms of community are born. This can only happen if leading personalities look beyond the level of conflict.

3. “Realities are more important than ideas” (231). There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. The Pope gives some example by speaking of those who simply remain on the level of words, images and sophisms. But reality is of a higher order and an idea which is separated from reality is becoming “nominalist” or “idealist” but it does not “generate personal engagement.”

4. “The whole is greater than the part” (234). An innate tension also exists between globalization and localization. We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality. Yet we also need to look to the local, which keeps our feet on the ground. Together, the two prevent us from falling into one of two extremes. Peoples around the globe have their particular culture and must be capable to preserve their particularity. Yet the aim is to bring the whole of mankind together in order to become a community based on the “common good”. This means that such community is determined by the whole and its parts.

The new form of evangelization which the Pope calls for is a passionate call for “personal engagement”, for “dialogue” between the state and society, faith and science, between different religions, believers and non- believers and different social layers of society.

There was a very positive commentary by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx (one of the members of the pope’s new advisory council of Cardinals) who called the paper “prophetic”, since it goes to the heart of things: Evangelization does not mean catechism, sacraments, administrative work, he wrote in a commentary (in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 15. December 2013) but it is devoted to the effort to create a “New Future for society and man.” He underlines in the article that the Pope is indeed “disturbing” those who only want to see and defend their own particular interests. Capitalism is not an end in itself, but the economy must serve man.