Afflicting the comfortable

MST column, published 7 Dec 2013

For many of us, the Pope used to be somebody who just happened to lead the Roman Catholic Church. He was holy and infallible, but also distant, inaccessible. 

Not this present Pope. 

At the onset, the Argentine Jose Maria Bergoglio or Pope Francis distinguished himself from many other Church leaders in ways both mundane and remarkable. Even after he was chosen Pope, he settled his own hotel bill, rode in a van alongside other cardinals and even personally called his newsboy back home to say he wouldn’t be having his paper delivered anymore. The telephone operator thought it was all a prank. 

He washed the feet of prisoners, didn’t get angry when a lost boy wandered into his altar and sat on his chair, and embraced a man with severe skin disease. He has reached out to atheists and homosexuals and hinted at expanding the role of women in the Church. 

We also heard he used to sneak out at night to share meals with the homeless, and that back in the day, he used to work as a nightclub bouncer. How cool is that? 

Now in an apostolic exhortation issued last month, the Pope has attacked poverty and income inequality and denounced what he calls the idolatry of money. Depending on who’s talking, that’s either the coolest thing -- or the un-coolest. 

According to Pope Francis, the present world is so pervaded by consumerism and frivolous pleasures. People become so caught up in their own interests which leaves no room for others.

He took issue with that smart-sounding phrase, “trickle-down economics,” which conveys blanket confidence in those who wield economic power. You allow the elite to run everything, trust that they will do the right thing, and hope that eventually the gains will be felt by all. But “the excluded are still waiting.” 

The wealth does not really trickle down. “The powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized -- without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

And how, indeed, “can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” 

Free market has been hailed by most societies for hundreds of years. Its benefits are many and have brought us to where we are. Competition has driven us to outdo ourselves every time. But is the hand really so unseen? 

“Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”

So even welfare mentality is not enough? I wonder how the well-heeled Catholics who regularly attend Sunday mass and provide token donations will react to the challenge to get off their perches and do more.

I wonder, too, how the Catholics with questionable business practices—not giving social security coverage to their workers, not paying them enough or in time, or treating them as no more than slaves who will do most everything for money—will take all this. 

And then you have those active, pontificating parishioners who talk about morality while enjoying their wealth that has been siphoned off from public funds —money that should have gone to projects that would empower the poor. 

To use the words of the President: “Saan sila kumukuha ng kapal ng mukha?”

The Pope’s reminders are also timely now that the Christmas season is hurtling towards us. It is too easy to get caught up in a mindless spending frenzy—decorations, presents, outfits for reunions, new gadgets. 

They are also fit in the context of providing continued relief to the survivors of Yolanda. When we deposit money to the bank account of a foundation, or put together a dozen or two relief packs, can we now stand up and say we’ve done our part? The Pope would think otherwise. 


Nonetheless, many remain critical of Pope Francis and the church. Among the more prominent ones is American radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope!” 

Some point out that despite Francis’ approach, the Vatican remains riddled with scandals and engaged in doublespeak. Its many officials, at home and abroad, still live a life of luxury. The church has also refused to share its findings on the sexual abuse cases with a United Nations panel. 

Of course Pope Francis, despite his fresh and open approach, is hardly a spokesperson for Occupy The Vatican. He cannot be expected to contradict the stand of the church in controversial issues like homosexuality, abortion and women priests. He still is the leader of the church which has been around for ages and ages. It is unreasonable to expect a major shift in so short a time. Still, the Pope has been bold enough to put these on the table so that people can start thinking and talking about these issues. 

Now with regard to economics, he has been unequivocal in his denunciation of “shameful wealth” and has made it clear that he wants religious and political leaders of the disturbed variety. 

“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.” 

When the Pope said “the thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” he could have said “the sky is blue” or that “night follows day.” And if it can jolt millions of comfortable, complacent Catholics to think of their faith as more than an affiliation, it would suffice, today. 

Money should serve humanity, not lead it. With this in mind, let us allow ourselves to be disturbed and afflicted, enough to do something about it in our individual spheres.