“Jesus is the one who says, ‘Woe to you who exploit people, who exploit labor, who pay under the table, who don’t pay pension contributions, who don’t offer vacation days. Woe to you!’” – Pope Francis, Mass homily of March 8, 2019
As tiresome as it has become to react to the vagaries of Pope Francis, it remains a necessity, for without a corrective some might believe what the Pope says is an accurate reflection of the Gospel and Church teaching. He is, after all, the Pope and the laity cannot be blamed for believing he is a faithful Catholic and credible teacher.
The Pope chose the first Friday in Lent to return to one of his favorite past-times: bashing capitalism. He combined this with another favorite past-time: bashing practicing Catholics. Conflating those who exploit workers with those who faithfully fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation, the Pope declared such people mortal sinners.
Resorting to biblical language, Francis rang down woe upon his designated evil-doers and, as is not unusual in his sermons, perverted both the letter and the spirit of Scripture by putting words into the mouth of Christ and altering one of the beatitudes to suit his purpose. He also, for the record, violated the laws of logic. We’ll get to that shortly.
Francis cited Jesus as denouncing those who pay workers under the table, fail to make pension contributions or provide paid vacations. Since pensions and paid vacations were not part of the usual employment arrangements two thousand years ago in Palestine, and since the Gospels contain no such words as Francis quotes, we can safely conclude that he is extrapolating from general principles, to put it kindly.
But, then, why not say, “I say” instead of “Jesus says”? There is a reckless disregard here for the rules of quotation and an evident desire to lend weight to a personal and contemporary assessment of management-labor relations. This disregard is also symptomatic of an alarmingly cavalier attitude towards the words of the Gospel.
And Francis’s condemnation is so general as to be practically useless. Greed is always exploitative and it is universal. Little is gained by a melodramatic calling down of “woe” upon unnamed persons. But Francis goes out of his way to lend some specificity to his condemnation. He singles out Catholics who faithfully attend Sunday Mass as the self-same culprits who skirt payroll taxes and pension contributions. Why does he direct his vitriol at Sunday-Mass goers?
The Pope has a history of attacking those who adhere to the laws of the Church, making fidelity to Church discipline a typical sign of hypocrisy. If one attends Mass on Sunday and confesses regularly, then he becomes suspect of evil-doing, according to the Pope’s repeated denunciations of “pharisaical” Catholics.
A papal homily, however, would not be complete without some tampering with Scripture or heterodox exegesis. In his March 8 homily Francis declared that “poverty is at the center of the Gospel.” That Jesus came so that the poor would have their proper share of worldly wealth is the conclusion the Pope draws from his reading of Scripture. This reading may be in keeping with Marxist “liberation theology” but it is not supported by the Gospel or the constant teaching of the Church.
How banal and narrow an understanding must one have to think that God became incarnate to address the unequal distribution of wealth? If this is, as Francis avers, “the
center of the Gospel,” then the Gospel is a rather trivial document on a par with many another political or economic tract.
And this leads us to the Pope’s wildly illogical peroration: he says that “Blessed are the poor” is the first of the beatitudes. He quotes from St. Luke. St. Matthew reads: “…poor in spirit.” The Church has always given St. Matthew’s expansion of the beatitude first consideration in its interpretation, which is that the poor in spirit are those who are humble (“spirit” here being equated with pride).
For Francis, the poor are those who have less money than most and who may not be receiving their due in pension benefits and paid vacations. But why such unfortunate people should be blessed then becomes a mystery. If they are blessed by being poor, then why take that blessing away from them?
But Francis does not think the poor are blessed. They are rather the victims of those Catholics who faithfully attend Sunday Mass. Francis wants these “pharisaical” Catholics to share the wealth and give workers more, so that they will no longer be poor, or so it would seem. But then, by the Pope’s own admission and his reading of Scripture, compliance with his demands would remove the blessing of poverty. And the Pope has not yet found the passage in which Jesus says, “Blessed are they with paid vacations who live in garden suburbs.”
The Pope concludes that if one were to preach as Jesus preached, the newspapers would run headlines saying, “That priest is a Communist.” Communism is about economics. The Gospel is about salvation. To equate salvation with the elimination of poverty through wealth distribution or higher wages and benefits is to strip the Gospel of its spirituality. Any priest who does this might be justly called, if not a Communist, something other than Catholic.
How far Francis will go in his distortion and exploitation of Scripture remains an open question. The “God of Surprises” that the Pope uses to justify his heterodox preaching may have more surprises in store for us. And we will have to continue to issue correctives with each new travesty issuing from the Casa Santa Marta or from aboard some plane on the way back from Zanzibar or Timbuktu.
If you ask, “Who am I to judge the Pope?”, the answer is that I am one possessed of a modicum of common sense and the ability to read the Gospel. It requires no more these days to qualify as a papal critic.