CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 16 March 2019

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A scorecard on Pope Francis

Four-and-a-half years after his election, Pope Francis shows no signs of slowing down or of incapacity despite his 80 years. 
He has been driving deep changes in the Church and has been stringent in his critiques of clericalism and careerism.
He has renewed the momentum from the Second Vatican Council and is pushing major changes in structures and culture, calling for greater transparency, lay consultation and participation in the Church, especially by women.
He wants the Church to be more strongly involved in the struggles of poor and marginalised people.
Not surprisingly, Pope Francis has upset many apple carts and is meeting resistance from some Catholics. As he says, it is not the end of an era, but a change of era in a vastly changed global context, in which faith must find fresh expression.
Pope Francis has also become a key figure on the secular international stage and he contributes to the discourse about current problems, from issues of war, violence and terrorism, to economic and social affairs dealing with inequality, hunger, poverty, migration and refugees. 
But how is the pope managing such a brief, given the astonishing range of issues and the urgency of many of them?
As a moral leader, the energetic Pope Francis has sharpened the relevance of his role, certainly in the urgent encounter with Islam, but also in the overarching global issues of climate change and world poverty.
At the World Youth Day events in Sydney in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI surprisingly made practically no mention of the great social justice issues, even though he was preparing his encyclical Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate) in response to the Global Financial Crisis.
However, Pope Francis has deliberately brought social justice to the centre of the Church’s mission today.
World leaders and heads of government have been queuing to meet him, even the president of the United States of America (US), Donald Trump, lined up for a chat.
The pope gave Trump copies of his major documents and stressed that he had signed one on climate change personally for him. But sadly, soon afterwards, Trump announced the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
But particularly in his best known work, Praise Be: On care for our common home (Laudato Si’), penned in 2015, Pope Francis warned not only about the catastrophic threat from global warming, but sharply criticised economic policies that were exacerbating inequality and failing adequately to alleviate global poverty.
But he also has his critics.
Some have strongly criticised Pope Francis’ views on social justice and inequality. In June 2015, commentators in The Australian argued that the pope’s views were not Church teaching, but his own private opinions and Catholics need not take them seriously.
Others declared that these questions should be left to scientists and Pope Francis had no authority to speak on such matters.
The editor-at-large of The Australian, Paul Kelly, wrote on June 24 that the pope’s language was “vivid, almost hysterical. Profound intellectual ignorance is dressed up as honouring God.”
Kelly charged that the pope and his advisers are “economic ideologues of a quasi-Marxist bent.” He added that the pope “delegitimises as immoral the position of pro-market reformers.”
However, Pope Francis himself insists that his documents rely on the best scientific advice available and are meant to be taken seriously as authoritative Church statements, although Catholics are free to debate them, as criticism can help make any corrections.
Nevertheless, he points out that his critique of unfair economic programmes has a long pedigree in Church social teaching, over 125 years, right back to Leo XIII’s Of Things New (Rerum Novarum) in 1891.
Despite opposition from the networks of right-wing media and think tanks aligned with and funded by major corporations, Pope Francis has many times reiterated his attack on extreme free-market ideologies and in part, blames them for growing inequality.
He acknowledges the huge benefits of well-regulated markets in lifting millions out of poverty, but laments that markets have often been perverted and corrupted by special interests, diverting the gains to small elite groups rather than benefitting the many.
The social views of Pope Francis have resonated profoundly with many others. There has been rising outrage in many countries against the neoliberal policies that have fanned extravagance and greed among elite groups, while austerity policies have caused widespread unemployment and severe hardship.
The resentment has been sweeping through Europe and even the US, helping explain the election of Trump and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
However, Pope Francis has had teams of people consulting world experts, many not Catholic, such as the leading economist and critic of inequality, Joseph Stiglitz; one of the architects of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals, Jeffrey Sachs; and on global warming, the director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a world authority in this field, who helped launch On care for our common home in Rome.
Schellnhuber insisted that the climate science behind the document is extremely sound. 
Many eminent scholars are members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
These bodies, which include numerous Nobel Prize laureates, have been researching such issues for years and advise Church agencies, including the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, under Peter Cardinal Turkson.
It is too early to tell how well Pope Francis will succeed in his agenda to encourage all people, whatever their belief, to work together in practical efforts to improve human life for everyone, with special regard for those on the margins and for the sustainability of the planet itself, as detailed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals for instance.
It is rumoured that Francis is preparing a new social encyclical. If so, one might expect him to continue his critique of neoliberal economic policies, but also to examine the causes of conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as the arms trade, which keeps further stoking these fires.
Pope Francis has said there is a war going on around the world, waged piecemeal.
Father Bruce Duncan CCSsR Yarra Theological Union