The Pope, it seems, let a fantastic opportunity slip through his fingers.
For all the praise, and fawning he is getting from one side of the aisle, and heat he is taking from the other, I wonder how many looked at the full text of his speech, and how many are just reacting to sound bites.
Many Conservatives are flogging him for statements he has made about the poor, the helpless and refugees.
It is perfectly reasonable, and within the scope of the Church’s responsibility to address such issues. The gospels are replete with examples. But the remedy prescribed is dangerously lacking.
He invokes, near the beginning of his address, the example of Moses. It is by Moses’ own example that I measure these statements.
Those familiar with the account will remember that Moses led Israel out of Egypt. (Notice: already there is a distinction between peoples. Those who are Israel, and those who are Egyptian.)
Moses leading Israel is not a political action, a petitioning of government, or even an armed rebellion. It is a rescue. Led by God. Deliberate. Orchestrated.
After wandering the desert 40 years, they were given a second opportunity to obey God’s direction to enter the Promised Land. Before they did, they were shown the land God would NOT give them, namely, the lands of Esau (Deut 2:5,6), Moab (v. 9), and Ammon (19).
When they entered any of those lands, they were to seek permission, purchase whatever supplies they needed, pass through quietly on the main road, and continue on their way.
The story of how God gave each nation a specific land to possess, was explained. A little later, Israel showed they had learned this lesson, because in defeating the king that waged war against them, they left the land of Ammon untouched (v. 37).
Nowhere in this story did it give permission to Israel to treat their neighbours’ borders as unimportant. It was God who had established those borders.
Even the land they were entering, they were forbidden by God to take it (Gen 15:16) until after their time in Egypt, because the sin of the Amorites had not yet reached a point which warranted their divine removal.
Does scripture talk about kindness to foreigners? It does. It talks about giving them equal treatment under the law, for instance. That’s what it expects of governments.
It tells individual people to treat foreigners graciously. These are not the same thing.
The role of government, as briefly outlined in Romans 13, does include the equitable dispensing of justice… but “social justice” is a newer concept, one not easily reconciled with that role … however much certain religious or elected officials may like to think so.
What a careful reading of Scripture WILL ABSOLUTELY point to, however, is the church itself — the people, rather than the institution — helping widows, orphans, and the poor generally. Something that Apostles Peter and Paul both made a point of mentioning.
It mentions that not caring for relatives indeed is being worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8). So charity, strictly speaking, should begin at home. Those that were “widows indeed” (ie, had no family members to turn to) were to be provided for by the Church (NOT the government).
Within the Church, both Jews and “Hellenists” were provided for, and the Deacons were appointed to oversee that nobody was missed.
Are you seeing a trend here? The Christians, from their own resources (the Church was not yet “institutionalized”) are actively caring for the daily needs of those among them. It was emphatically NOT the government’s job, even though Rome had long since had their own version of Food Stamps.
Later, the Roman Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) complained that Jews and Christians were making pagans look bad:
“Why do we not observe that it is their [Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [i.e. rejection of Rome’s Gods]? For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”
When the Church throws this responsibility over to the government, two things happen.
Powers become unduly centralized: something that at least some forms of the Catholic doctrine “Subsidiarity”, referenced in his address, warn against.
The redemptive aspect of charity is stripped away when governments get involved. (Space prevents my elaborating, but this was more fully explained in my book.)
Lastly, while there are other issues many would point to (addressing environment, immigration and death penalty but not abortion, for instance), the thing that leaves me, as an Evangelical, scratching my head is his curious emphasis on superficial, political solutions to deeper moral problems.
If asked, the Pontiff might agree that the greatest problem in the world, ultimately, is human sin.
From that, all other evils flow. Allowing that he believes the historical Creeds, Christianity is unique in answering that problem at its source: repentance and new birth.
Borrowing his words, a “simplistic reductionism” of humanity’s ills into merely a “political” problem, while celebrating religions that explicitly deny the gospel? That demonstrates a surprising lack of confidence in the transformative power of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
To reduce such problems to being merely political is to suggest Christ died in vain.
He did not.
What would I say to the Pope, if he were listening?
Open the Vatican’s coffers to the poor, if you like. I will not object.
But please, I urge you, do as Paul did. Do not waste audiences like these ones with secondary issues. They are too precious.
Do not continue to miss the chance to preach the good news of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The “social gospel” is a miserable substitute.