Recently Pope Francis gave a video address to the fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements (EMMP), a primarily but not exclusively Latin American coming-together of social and political activists against poverty and inequality. Francis made a positive reference to the protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd last year. The usual suspects on the American Catholic far right focused like a laser on this reference, which is not surprising, given their own institutional and personal interests. However, this was only one of many important issues on which Pope Francis spoke. One of the most interesting aspects of the address, in my opinion, is Francis’s reliance upon the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church to substantiate his stances, teachings, and opinions. The Compendium was published in 2004 and complements the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a John Paul II-era digest of the Church’s teachings—specifically on politics and society.
One of the fairer criticisms of Pope Francis’s teachings is his tendency in his encyclicals and exhortations to quote and cite heavily from his own previous writings. This can create the perception of a pope interested mostly in his own theology and his own views and positions, which isn’t necessarily a fair characterization of Francis’s magisterium itself but which could indicate an overly introspective personality. One of the remarkable qualities, therefore, of the address to the EMMP is how heavily Francis stresses the continuity of his positions with those articulated in the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate. The Compendium was produced by a dicastery, the former Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which at the time had the strongly pro-life and Dignitatis Humanae Institute-affiliated Cardinal Renato Martino as its President. As Francis points out,
In chapter four of this document, we find principles such as the preferential option for the poor, the universal destination of goods, solidarity, subsidiarity, participation, and the common good. These are all ways in which the Good News of the Gospel takes concrete form on a social and cultural level. And it saddens me that some members of the Church get annoyed when we mention these guidelines that belong to the full tradition of the Church. But the Pope must not stop mentioning this teaching, even if it often annoys people, because what is at stake is not the Pope but the Gospel.
The universal destination of goods in particular is an ancient concept, present in Aquinas and probably even further back. Pope Francis does well to connect the proposals in his address to this and similar concepts. This is especially important, because otherwise he might be accused of merely cribbing from “secularist” progressive movements—an accusation about Francis’s social magisterium that is widespread and unfair. Typically, this charge is difficult to adequately refute due to his writing’s above-mentioned self-referential quality.
That he situates his teaching within the larger tradition is especially prudent in this address because Francis spends several paragraphs talking about two specific policy proposals currently under intense consideration on the political left. The first of these is shortening working hours, a longstanding goal of labor organizing going back over a century to the fight for the current eight-hour workday. The second is universal basic income (UBI), which many see as a paradigmatic “free stuff” progressive position. Indeed, this is the sort of proposal that the type of young people attracted to organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America tend to strongly support. Even so, it’s been heavily criticized by old-guard leftists, and one of its early theorists was the right-wing economist Milton Friedman, who wished to preserve some form of government assistance for the poor while shifting the onus to the poor themselves to figure out how to spend the assistance money. Francis’s argument on this issue is a little recondite; he frames it in terms of a humane distribution of resources in order to provide everyone with the basic necessities of life, but he is also concerned about overburdening the middle class in the implementation of such a policy. This sort of balance between hands-off subsidiaritarian thinking and the practical demands of solidarity with the poor is a central theme of the Compendium.
Another recent speech from a high-ranking churchman seems to involve the same effort to situate Francis’s Magisterium more firmly within the history of Catholic thought. This is Archbishop Arthur Roche’s first public address as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), a position to which he was appointed in May after a months-long visitation of the congregation. He replaced the traditionalist-leaning Cardinal Robert Sarah. Roche, speaking to staff and students at the Anselmianum—one of Rome’s pontifical universities—emphasized “a new awakening of the sacred Scriptures in the Roman Rite.” He pointed to the Pauline Mass’s increased use of scripture and adoption of a more intensive lectionary cycle as one of the main legacies of the Second Vatican Council and indeed as a conservative motion (the Vatican II-era term was ressourcement, “return to the sources” or “back to the basics”), a decision to add historical depth to the liturgy via a renewed focus on scriptural and patristic materials.
Roche also, as reported in America,
drew attention to “two dimensions of the liturgy of which we should never lose sight as they describe the very nature of the church.” The first—the synchronic dimension—is that “as Catholics, we are, here and now, united to every other Catholic throughout the world, and through our local bishop, we are united to the pope, the successor of St. Peter”….[whereas t]he second dimension—the diachronic dimension—is that “in the church we are also united to all the people of faith who ever lived and believed and all the Catholics who will ever live and believe in the future.”
This is in fact a common observation in the more conservative or traditional variety of high church Protestant (such as Anglican or Lutheran) liturgics, the version of top-level liturgical theory with which I was made most familiar studying at Boston University School of Theology. It is interesting to see a Catholic prelate advancing this point in an effusively positive explanation of the conciliar Mass. One wonders if the fact that Roche is an Englishman influenced his decision to pursue this particular point, since the idea of an almost “capital-H” History as a ratifying and legitimizing force is common in English philosophical and religious thought. This idea is present in English Catholicism, Anglicanism, and even the United Kingdom’s political system. As someone who came into the Catholic Church through the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a structure whose understanding of the Church and its history owes much to conservative Anglican philosophy and liturgy, I felt that I was on familiar and comfortable ground reading about Roche’s speech.
Roche’s vision of Christ who through the incarnation “makes possible the flow or the ‘passage of time’ to enter into the ‘always of eternity’” is a truly beautiful one, as is Pope Francis’s call to “ask God to pour out His blessings on our dreams.” These decisions to focus on providing historical texture to the direction of the Francis pontificate, if they represent a concerted move by the Pope and those close to him, strike me as very promising indeed.
Image: Anton Raphael Mengs’s “The Triumph of History over Time,” from the Vatican Museums.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.