Tackling inequality: Where a president meets a pope

By Martin E. Marty
March 27, 2014

There has been much speculation about President Barack Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday. One Catholic church authority asserted, “it is not the task of the pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality.” The pope got that message — he wrote it himself in his first official “Papal Exhortation” last year.

Yet Francis has also asserted that his papacy has a “grave responsibility” to  “exhort all the communities to an ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times” — particularly to know the face of the poor and outcast.

For the pope, this scrutiny must take in the fierce public debate about government cuts that now overshadows U.S. politics. The left and the right are battling over sharp reductions in foods stamps and unemployment benefits, denial of healthcare to those least able to afford it and cuts in many programs designed to help the poor and needy.

Francis has dedicated his papacy to helping those marginalized by harsh economic policies and personal setbacks. He advocates for a “poor church,” one that can give a voice to the voiceless. So poverty of all kinds will likely be an urgent topic when the pope and the president sit down.

Francis, of course, directly addresses only the 1.2 billion humans who are in the Catholic orbit, and Obama was elected to serve only one nation. Both, however, have “gone global” — their words and actions affect “present realities” around the world.

You never know where a conversation will go. Unlike arguments, which are guided by having answers to defend, conversations move by the posing of questions. While politeness figures in as presidents talk with popes — we can picture the pope, who has a calling of his own, probing into Washington’s policies that affect the poor, the exiled, the excluded and the victims of injustice.

Francis will likely discuss the plight of immigrants as well as the unemployed, the underemployed and the poor. For this pope’s continuing theme is that today’s policies often promote inequality.

Francis frequently elaborates on this, noting that just as the commandment says thou shalt not kill, “Today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

The pope’s words have drawn fire from those who want to box him in as a “socialist” or, absurdly, a “Marxist.” But he is only focused on the faces of the poor and the left-out. He realizes that to see their faces is to recognize their humanity.

He does acknowledge some positive efforts, the “advances being made in many fields.” He adds, “We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as healthcare, education and communications.” But he focuses on what more has to be done.

This pope is less likely to talk about valid intra-church debates, such as the ordination of women as priests or controversies classed as battles in “culture wars” and then fought over politically.

He makes clear again and again that his concern is for all of modern society — demonstrated through policies that help those now left out to live with dignity and in freedom. In a recent speech, for example, Pope Francis urged that it was “necessary to reaffirm that employment is necessary for society, for families and for individuals. Its primary value is for the good of the human person.” He has warned, “The unemployed and underemployed risk being relegated to the margins of society, becoming victims of social exclusion.”

Yet he must see that we have already gone beyond “risk.” They are today marginalized and excluded.

Pointedly, the pope draws on particular resources, namely those of Christianity, as reflected in the title of that exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” But though billions may not believe in the Jesus of the Gospels, they may resonate with many Gospel-type concerns. The pope believes that if  Christians, beginning with the Catholic Church, do keep in mind certain homilies of Jesus in the Gospel about “the poor,” the whole world can respond — and benefit.

Obama may find his policies and programs reflect some of what the pope has called “advances being made in many fields.” Yet the president is being criticized from both left and the right. He will no doubt hear more criticism, perhaps from the pope, that the White House has stalled or retreated on key policies.

We can expect new understandings to emerge on Thursday between the president and the pope as they discuss strategic issues with which they can hope only to find partial successes.

Again, you never know where a conversation will go. But there is little doubt about where the pope will invite us to read with him “the signs of the time,” and how he will direct his call for ever more “watchful scrutiny” followed by positive action.

By refusing to resort to political and economic slogans and instead looking into the faces of the poor — as he does even while serving in the Vatican — Francis sets an example, keeps his focus and helps the rest of us join him in serving the poor.


PHOTO (TOP): Pope Francis and President Barack Obama. REUTERS/Files

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Pope Francis talks with a child as he arrives to lead a special audience with pilgrims from Terni’s diocese in Paul VI hall at the Vatican, March 20, 2014. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Pope Francis reaches out to greet the faithful as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican, March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile


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