Has Pope Francis Revolutionised Social Teaching?

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Speaking notes Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin

Villanova University, 12th November 2014

“Has Pope Francis revolutionised the social teaching of the Church?  The answer is yes, but probably not in the sense that you are thinking of.  One of the biggest difficulties is that we all like what Pope Francis says… when he says is what we like.  Even there I would have to qualify that statement and say rather than “when he says is what we like” with “when we like what we think he says”.  We all have much to learn about the way in which Pope Francis speaks.

Pope Francis is the master of “one-liners”, short, pithy and striking phrases, ideal for Twitter.  The problem is that “one-liners” are like the parables.  They have one message and if you get it, you get it.  But if you do not get it or try to hyper-analyse it, you have lost it totally.

I think that it is important to say at the outset, that I chose the title of this talk well before attending the recent Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, where many – I believe – failed really to understand Pope Francis.   The Synod of last month was not the Synod of Confusion, yet there are many who seem to think that this was the case.  Why such talk of confusion?  Most would draw the line at criticising Pope Francis directly, though some came somewhat close to doing so.   Some blame the Synod itself, others the media, others would point their fingers at those who expressed views that were not their own. 

There are those who do not like some of Pope Francis’ comments on social and economic questions either.  Regarding the social teaching of the Church some, as the Pope himself mentioned, have called him a communist.  Others say that his vision and experience are limited to the specific problems of Latin America or even only of Argentina and that he does not understand the market.  I like to remember that when Sollicitudo Rei Socialis was written, Pope John Paul was accused of advocating moral equivalence between communism and a market economy.  Pope John Paul II was no communist.

We are all trying hard to put Pope Francis into categories, but these categories are most often our own categories and the thought-patterns within which we can be locked and become unable to understand others.

In trying to understand how Pope Francis is revolutionising the social teaching of the Church, I think that would be very helpful to look a little closer at the methodology which the Pope espoused at the Synod.

The first thing is that Pope has ideas, not just about the Synod, but about Synodality. He thinks not just about an event, but a process, a dynamic, and a different way of living the reality of the Church and of relationships within the Church.   In the interview that he granted to La Civiltà Cattolica last year he noted: “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality should be lived at various levels”.

It is not easy for us in the Latin Church to enter into the methodology of synodality.  Unlike the Orthodox and Protestant Churches we have a weak culture of synodality.   In Ireland we had a National Synod in 1956 and it was very much an event to update canonical norms and priestly discipline.   In some cases today, people would prefer an assembly rather than a synod; because a Synod has a clear framework which they feel would act like a straight jacket.  Synods are, however, not parliaments where everything is decided by vote and majority.  Neither are Synods simply something “protestant”, as some commentators seemed to be saying. Synodality is a tradition of the entire Catholic Church around which we need to re-focus.

Pope Francis reminded the Synod Fathers that the first thing required for a successful Synod was boldness in speech and expression. This encouraged some and made others anxious. At the opening of the very first General Congregation of the Synod, Pope Francis was unambiguous:

“Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This cannot be said’; it is necessary to say everything that one feels with parrhesia (a term meaning bold and courageous speechAfter the last Consistory in which there was discussion on the family, a Cardinal wrote to me saying: too bad that some Cardinals did not have the courage to say some things out of respect for the Pope, thinking, perhaps, that the Pope thought something different. This is not good; this is not Synodality, because it is necessary to say everything that one feels should be said in the Lord, without a merely human respect, without fear. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome with an open heart what the brothers say. With these two attitudes one practices Synodality”.

Already, as I said, there were those who became uneasy about such a statement.  “How could a Pope leave everything open to discussion?” they asked.  Is it not the Pope’s role to foster and maintain unity and purity of doctrine?  Was he saying that some of the fundamental teachings of the Church on marriage and the family were open game for discussion?

The Pope in no way talked about a re-dimensioning of his own authority or a re-writing of the doctrine of the Church.   In fact, he stressed that the Pope’s authority is “supreme, full, immediate, and universal”, but added that does not mean that he should exercise his authority as a “supreme Lord”.  His mandate is to be a “guarantor of the adhesion of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church.”

In a remarkable talk at the very end of the Synod, the Pope tried to tease out what open discussion means and what the temptations are which hinder fruitful and bold discussion.  He reminded his hearers of the temptations into which we can all fall in our attitudes in open discussion within the Church.

The first was a temptation to what the Pope called “hostile inflexibility”; that is “wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises; wanting to remain within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve.  From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – ‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals”.

Alongside this the Pope spoke about the temptation of a destructive tendency to cheap goodness. He spoke of a deceptive mercy that binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

Finally he talked also about the temptation to neglect the deposit of faith.  We are guardians of the faith, but not owners or masters of it; and on the other hand, there is the temptation to neglect reality, “making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing!”

Pope Francis the went on to say that: “the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebub (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment”.   Summing up the debate, then, the Pope said:

“I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life”.

I have spoken at some length about the Synod because I feel that it is important to understand what the Pope wished to achieve and how there was clearly no rejection of or undermining of the teaching of the Church as some perhaps might have hoped for and about which other felt upset.   I have spoken at length about the Synod because I feel that we can find here some keys into how Pope Francis addresses the social teaching of the Church and is revolutionising it.

This Pope’s final speech at the Synod shows how he seeks to examine the relationship between the realities of faith and the realties of the lives of the men and women of our time, through a form of theological discernment.  This was approach to the themes of marriage and the family.  This is also the way in which he develops his reflections on the social teaching of the Church.  The social reflection of the Church is not abstract reflection and analysis; it is in the first place a call on the Church to be close to people, especially those who need closeness and accompaniment.  It is a task of bringing the closeness and intimate care of Jesus towards them and restoring them to being the men and women who they are called to be.

With that in mind, I would like now to look at how Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, develops this understanding of the social teaching and the social care of the Church as representing the closeness of Jesus to those who are forlorn and abandoned and marginalised and tormented.

In the first place the approach of Pope Francis to the social teaching of the Church is not political or sociological but theological.  He rejects a purely sociological analysis employing a neutral and clinical method.  His approach is that which is characteristic of a missionary disciple of Jesus, nourished by the light and strength of the Holy Spirit: a form namely of evangelical discernment,

He sees this theological reflection on social realities and social care as part of the task of proclaiming the Gospel: 

“Accepting the first proclamation, which invites us to receive God’s love and to love him in return with the very love which is his gift, brings forth in our lives and actions a primary and fundamental response: to desire, seek and protect the good of others”. (EG 178)

The task is to desire to seek and to protect; not just to think about or to reflect on the good of others.    The Christian’s response to those who are excluded is to bring the closeness of Jesus to them through being close to them.   There is an inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love. 

“God’s word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: “As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2).

The Pope’s approach is theological but he does not affirm that the Gospel or the teaching of the Church can be applied simply and directly to contingent and changing situations of the social realities of the day.  The social teaching must always be open to look at the fruits of the social sciences and must remain in critical dialogue with them. The Pope does not claim for himself nor for the Church a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or on the solutions to contemporary problems. Pope Francis quotes Pope Paul VI in Octagesima Adveniens: “In the face of such widely varying situations, it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. This is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyse with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country”

The responses of the Church must be open also to legitimate scientific and even political interpretations.  But Pope Francis also stresses that the social teaching cannot remain totally in the abstract and enunciate only vague general principles: 

“The Church’s pastors, taking into account the contributions of the different sciences, have the right to offer opinions on all that affects people’s lives, since the task of evangelisation implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being. It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. We know that God wants his children to be happy in this world too, even though they are called to fulfilment in eternity, for he has created all things “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17), the enjoyment of everyone”. (EG 179).

In this the Pope stresses that “The Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ”.

Pope Francis stresses that this interaction of theology and closeness to those who do not enjoy the goods of God’s creation is a task for all believers: “All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world”.  It is interesting to note that in the period after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI took up two ideas which had been proposed by the Council:  the establishment of a specific Vatican Department for the Laity and of a Vatican Office to look at the questions of world hunger and justice.  Originally it was proposed that these offices should be formed into one.  But Pope Paul noted that the work for justice and the fight against injustice, while primarily task for lay Christians, was not exclusively so.  Priests and religious also have a responsibility to be active, each within their own charism, in this task.  So Paul VI decided to establish two separate bodies: The Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Pope Francis refers to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church as a useful tool for knowing and applying the body of knowledge of the social teaching.  In Evangelii Gaudium he limits himself to looking at central issues which he feels will shape the future of humanity. They become in a certain way another key to enter into the thought of Pope Francis.


The dominant theme is that of including the poor in society.  Again the reflection is theological.  “It is our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, that is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members”. Each individual Christian is called then to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.  The commitment is not just a political imperative; it springs from the very nature of God.  A mere glance at the Scriptures is enough to make us see how God listens to the cry of the poor and wants us to hear the cry of the poor.

The fundamental option for the poor is not a political manifesto; it is implicit in our Christian faith.  This is why Pope Francis, from the very first moments of his ministry, has proclaimed that he wishes a Church which is poor and for the poor.  He wants to see the poor not just as those who are helped and assisted, but as real protagonists within society and indeed also within the Church.  The poor evangelise us through their deep faith and because they experience the suffering of Jesus Christ.  The new evangelization offers an opportunity for us to acknowledge that the saving power of Jesus is at work through the poor.  We must “embrace the mysterious wisdom which Christ wishes to share with us through them”.  Unless we understand and listen to the poor we will not understand and grasp the mysterious wisdom of Christ.

The basis of our response then is not simply one of analysis of the situation of poverty or of developing plans but in the first place it springs from the very definition of our being Christian.  Social concern is not an optional extra of our faith. We are God’s instruments of hearing the poor.  If we turn deaf ears to the plea of the poor, we are indifferent to God.  A lack of solidarity towards the needs of the poor shows rejection of God.    Solidarity is not about a few sporadic acts of generosity. It involves constant conversion; it presumes the creation of a mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods and wealth by a few. It presumes that the person is at the centre of our concern and not just some intellectual framework.  The reflection always begins with real people, especially those who are wounded.

Pope Francis is a master at the use of the symbolic gesture.   For me, one of the most striking gestures of Pope Francis was an encounter with a young man whose face was completely covered in sores.  The Pope did not do what most of us would probably have done: greeted kindly him from a safe distance or simply asked him – or perhaps asked his doctors – what disease he had and what the medical prognosis was.  Pope Francis stopped and kissed the man.  He saw not a problem, but a person. The basic ethic must be an ethic of human kindness, which is the most challenging ethic of all and one in which all of us, me included, continuously fail.  That fundamental ethics of humanity is however the one without which all our other ethical projects will fall flat.

Pope Francis sums up his thought on solidarity with the poor with a quote from the Bishops of Brazil, which is presumably a quote that has a special place in his memory.   

“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”.

The theme of wastefulness is one to which Pope Francis turns again and again.  He criticizes the throw away society in which we live and which applies not only to wastefulness of food, but to a mentality in which the poor themselves become part of those whose worth is measured only in terms of their economic usefulness.

What are the guiding principles then which Pope Francis places as the pillars for the Church’s response to the needs of the poor today?  In Evangelii Gaudium he presents us with a very explicit list of situations about which the Christian can only say No.

The first is a No to an economy of exclusion. It is clear for the Pope that having a precise understanding of the experience of exclusion is a prerequisite for undertaking that evangelical discernment needed to formulate the Church’s response to social exclusion.     Real life experience is the starting point of the Pope’s reflection.

The Pope does not simply talk about exclusion.  The Pope witnessed to his teaching himself, by making his first trip outside Rome to Lampedusa, the Italian island which is often the first encounter for migrants arriving by precarious boat journeys to Europe.    His words about exclusion are stark:

“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.    Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

He addresses what he calls “a globalisation of indifference” which not only affects lack of opportunity for the poor; it changes us and hardens us and renders us insensitive as well.  We end up being, he says,

“incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us”.

When God created humanity he created it as a family.  This is a simple affirmation. From this affirmation, however, flow the principles of common responsibility, of solidarity and of that familial relationship of love that should be the true trademark of relationships among people and between peoples. This is the fundamental principle that should guide the process of globalisation.  Globalisation will be worthy of its name if it enhances the unity of the human family.  Any form of globalisation that breeds exclusion, marginalisation, instability, indifference and crass inequality does not have the right to call itself global.  Globalisation has to be made the synonym of inclusive.

Some of the changes that are taking place in our era of economic globalization make it more and more difficult to identify the processes for guiding the process of globalization. The complex balance of the public and the private sectors, the dominance of economic values above all others, the inadequacy of our international structures make the governance of globalization difficult.  In international relations, including trade relations, rules are important.  But we should remember the basic principle that rules are there to defend the more vulnerable and to restrain any tendency towards arrogance of these who are more powerful.  Often in international negotiations, sadly the rules are made or greatly influenced by the powerful. Rules are necessary but they can remain a naked skeleton unless they are covered in the flesh and blood of solidarity.

The second “No” is a No to a financial system which rules rather than serves. Pope Francis is aware of the need to generate wealth through healthy economic activity.  But he stresses the real meaning and scope of the economy is not just that.  In his Message to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos his primary message was simple:  “Without ignoring, naturally, the specific scientific and professional requirements of every context, I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it”.  

As an aside, it is interesting to note that Pope Francis has no difficulty is addressing his message to the World Economic Forum or, as he did just ten days ago, to the World Meeting of Social Movements.

When we talk about the world financial system, we have to recover our awareness that the market and indeed the economy are part of a broader picture and that there are other values than purely economic values.   But we need especially to foster those economic values which will be in the best interest of the broad community.