The surprising Pope

Francis I continues to shock and amaze


Pope Francis I continues to shock and amaze. You can’t help but wonder whether the College of Cardinals really knew what the cardinals were getting when they elected him in March, or whether they were completely in charge of the process.

Symbols, as the Catholic Church powerfully reminds us, are never just symbols. It was enormously powerful when the Pope washed the feet of two delinquent teenage girls and a young Muslim prisoner on Holy Thursday. Women usually are excluded from the foot-washing. A Muslim never had been considered.

Similarly, the Pope’s refusal to live in the papal apartments — actually a palace — and his decision to reside instead in a guest house and take his meals cafeteria-style with others not only are unprecedented, but such behavior had not even been imagined before.

Some church bureaucrats surely are sharpening long symbolic knives, especially when the Pope says the church is too wealthy and does not serve the poor enough. He says this kind of thing often.

Now the Pope has criticized “unbridled” capitalism and the “cult of money.” He has called for ethical reform of the global financial system. He has said governments need to tackle the root causes of the economic crisis, which he says are based in an acceptance of money’s “power over ourselves and our society.”

“We have created new idols,” he said in a recent address in the Vatican. “The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”

A few days ago, the Pope said that growing worldwide inequality is caused by “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to states, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”

Papal teaching documents have long criticized capitalism. Pope Francis’ two predecessors said things very much like what he is saying. But this Pope says such things almost daily, not yearly.

And he says them with a certain vehemence. Why is it, he asked off the cuff, that when a bank fails it is a political disaster, but when a homeless man dies, the media and the world yawn?

Months ago, a big-name, right-wing commentator said he wanted people to be clear: Jesus was no socialist. Pope Francis apparently disagrees.