Pope Francis delivers his Angelus prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, March 17, 2013. Credit: AP
Is Pope Francis (formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) a socialist who will allow liberation theology to infiltrate the Catholic Church? This question, when posed, caused Sam Gregg, research director at the Action Institute, a conservative think tank, to chuckle. TheBlaze interviewed Gregg on Friday to speak further about Francis' take on poverty and social justice.
As over-the-top as the aforementioned curiosity sounds, since the pontiff's election on Wednesday, some have quietly been voicing concerns. And there's no doubt that outlets, pundits and political observers, alike, have spent the past week exploring Francis' background in an effort to better understand where he stands on the economic front.
A LOVER OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY AND SOCIALISM?
So, what's the verdict?
Well, it's clear from his past and present statements and behaviors that Pope Francis cares deeply about the poor and that he lives a very humble and -- by all accounts -- modest life (he cooked his own meals, took public transportation and decided not to live in lavish quarters). But how far does this devotion to the poor go? Is Francis concerned with government structure and taxation or will he stick firmly to the faith and encouraging believers to help those in need?
This quest for context and its associated curiosities, of course, is nothing new. Whenever a new pope is elected, the public and media, alike, look incessantly for any and all information that will shed light on the new-found faith leader's character and a past actions. And considering that the Catholic Church has 1.2 billion members across the globe, Pope Francis' viewpoints matter, mostly because of the control and influence he will have over believers.
During a phone interview, Gregg explained Francis' background and dismissed any claims that the pontiff is a socialist or has connections with liberation theology. As for the latter movement, the researcher explained that this ideology never took off in Argentina as it did in other Latin American countries -- and, in fact, he credited Francis for liberation theology's overall failure in the country.
Pope Francis gives his first Angelus Blessing to the faithful from the window of his private residence on March 17, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Vatican is preparing for the inauguration of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 in St Peter's Square. Credit: Getty Images
"His basic line was that, of course, Christians have to be concerned about injustice, but it is not the place of the priest to get involved in politics, generally speaking, let alone revolutionary behavior," Gregg told TheBlaze. "In terms of his practical action, he purposefully held back his Jesuits [from] getting involved in direct political action and revolutionary activity."
Francis was also well aware of the Marxist roots of liberation theology and, as Gregg noted, he "recognized that that wasn't compatible with being a Christian." Further driving home how important rejecting this ideology was to the pontiff, Gregg said that the stance inevitably hurt him. He contends that it made Francis unpopular with many Jesuits living in Argentina who embraced the controversial thought-process at the time.
The Associated Press has corroborated some of this information in recent reports, writing on Saturday that Francis "never favored liberation theology." That said, the outlet explained that he spoke out after the economy collapsed in 2001, denouncing capitalism's excesses and corruption. But, of course, denouncing corruption has nothing to do with embracing liberation theology or socialistic views.
LIVING A HUMBLE LIFE
As far as living a humble life goes, the stories being told about Francis' personal and frugal decisions are both encouraging and admirable. Gregg believes that these elements actually define his persona and provide "the most powerful symbolic message" about who the new leader truly is.
"I think the most significant thing is asceticism -- his asceticism -- because we live in socieites that are quite materialistic. People often fall into the trap of seeing significance as how much stuff [we] have," he explained. "Asceticism doesn't mean that you reject the mateiral world or believe that people in commerce or trade aren't good people -- it means not letting material things become the cener of your life."
From a Christian perspective, removing oneself from the material is a viable move if it helps believers orient themselves and their spirituality toward life's elements that truly matter, Gregg noted.
A general view shows people waiting for pope's first Angelus prayer at St Peter's square on March 17, 2013 at the Vatican. Pope Francis begins his papacy in earnest today ahead of his formal inauguration mass, with a weekly prayer address used by previous pontiffs to comment on international affairs. The pope's first Angelus prayer, delivered from a window high above St Peter's Square, is a chance for the first Latin American pontiff to begin to sketch out a more global vision for the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
THE POPE'S ECONOMIC WORLDVIEW
As for the "socialist" question that led Gregg to laugh, he drew out some important points about how the pope likely views the world. First and foremost, he is a Catholic and, thus, sees the world through that lens. All other labels, of course, fall secondary.
"I would say Francis is not a socialist. He's also not a capitalist," Gregg said. "He doesn't think of himself in those sort of economic terms. He has views reflective of the society in which he live. He's going to look to Catholic social teaching, to the tradition of the church."
In a commentary on National Review, Gregg affirmed these details and made some predictions about the future. More notably, he said he doesn't see Francis getting too embroiled in economic policymaking in the near future:
My suspicion is that Pope Francis is not going to invest enormous intellectual energy in proposing various schemes for economic reform. He will certainly continue to champion the interests of the poor against those who want to maintain the corrupt status quo prevailing throughout many developing nations. There is such a thing as economic justice and the Catholic Church has a definite view of what that looks like. But inferring that the new pope is going to bring Occupy Wall Street to the Vatican takes more than a stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s a form of Kirchneristic wishful thinking that simply doesn’t do justice to the wisdom and sanctity of the man.
The researcher was also careful to note that concern for the poor is something that should exist beyond the socialist realm.
It is the bounds of this charity, though, that some question. Will Francis merely push for Catholics and other religious individuals to be more charitable and giving at the individual level or will he push for government policies that do the same (or, perhaps, advocate a mixture of the two)?
Newly elected Pope Francis holds his first audience with journalists and media inside the Paul VI hall on March 16, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Credit: Getty Images
While Gregg seems to think that there's a strong change he will avoid structural and systematic issues that create or sustain poverty, not everyone is so sure. At least one expert that The Huffington Post's Jaweed Kaleen spoke with seemed somewhat more uncertain regarding how Francis will tackle these issues in the coming months and years.
"You can tell that this is a man who is speaking from experience, not in a lecture. His sermons have talked about proximity to the poor," Michael Lee, a professor of theology at Fordham University, told HuffPo. "He is fond of quoting from the Latin American bishops who as a group have been strong and vocal against structural poverty and the downsides of globalization in underdeveloped countries in Latin America and Africa."
It's certainly understandable why some are asking questions and pondering the pope's background. But one must consider context when examining these issues -- both geographic and personal perspective as a result of experiences. While it is true that poverty is close to Francis' heart, there's no indication that he's a socialist and it's on record that he combated liberation theology as a result of its Marxist roots.
As far as how he'll address issues pertaining to poverty and the economy, well, we'll simply have to wait and see.
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