And Boehner Cried

I was away from the Gotham Fellowship this week, and unfortunately poor technology prevented me from joining the class discussion. Yet, there is much still to say given Pope Francis’ visit to the United States this week as it relates to the concepts we are learning in the Gotham Fellowship, and Christian faith in general.

My biggest takeaway from his trip thus far (he’s just finished addressing Congress) is the way in which the public, the media, and friends fall captive to “reductionist simplicity”, the Pontiff’s very words in his Congressional speech. Or, as columnist David Brooks writes, “…we in the press are about to over-politicize his visit to America.”

Certainly, Pope Francis has intentionally and symbolically embraced the disenfranchised, the poor, and non-Christians more so than his two predecessors. He has made statements in the press which do not contradict Roman Catholic doctrine, but indicate a willingness to engage with homosexuals, the divorced, those who have had abortions and more. And the Pontiff has been critical of capitalism’s failings in advocating for the poor and the environment, which can be left behind in many capitalistic endeavors.

Yet, the cacophony of outrage from certain quarters, Christian and secular, is so disappointing to me. Some will holler, “He’s a communist!” Others will say, “The church is going down.” The reactionary ferocity and simplistic reduction of many prevent the very dialogue and understanding Pope Francis encourages. I don’t agree with the man for all my personal economic convictions, but, dang…some would have you believe that Lenin rides the Pope-mobile.

Below I have posted eleven of the Holy Father’s statements about capitalism. Except for number four, I can’t say I disagree with one of them. Number four is:

“[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

I would debate his observation of the power of free markets, but would wholeheartedly agree with him that there is a “crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” That, friends, is the doctrine of sin, and it is alive in well in all of us, all the time.

(In the midst of the debate, this Onion headline made my day…)

The irony in all of this is that Pope Francis still stands upon the doctrine and teaching of the church on a myriad of matters. In the grand scheme of things he is still a very conservative person of faith. Just ask an Islamic mufti or atheist professor at MIT. For all the noise concerning his theological or social agenda, he is merely shifting the Roman Catholic conversation by a few degrees. Some pretend this shift is like a baseball catcher for the Red Sox who has become a computer programing nerd. Rather, it is more akin to the Red Sox catcher playing second base…for the Red Sox! It happens. The team and the game is the same; focus is a bit different.

At First Pres we have long taught Biblical Entrepreneurship (, and it has paved the way for the greater Center for Faith & Work. What I like about the curriculum is that it critiques both Marxist economies and capitalist economies, calling the student to embrace neither, but God’s economy. The lessons show how Scripture leans in the direction of freedom of markets and economic flourishing, but at the same time Scripture calls out the unfettered greed, lack of concern for the poor, and situations where defending the defenseless is warranted. The curriculum points to God’s expectation of generosity and care for the least of these. Compassionate capitalism, if you will.

In the Gotham Fellowship we won’t get as deep into economic systems and the corrective Scripture affords, but as the training mechanism for the Center for Faith & Work we are looking at what a public Gospel has to say in all areas of life, and as Christians, how our profession of a public Gospel seeks to live in peace with a diverse, pluralistic society. One can’t be a simpleton or reductionist and expect others to comprehend the Gospel. I can’t scream, “Marxist!” and fail to repent from the ways in which my own preferred system, economic in this instance, has shortcomings.

Humility, nuance, and understanding are the markers of wisdom, and wisdom is needed if we are to be respected and relevant as Christ followers in today’s world.

In closing, I was most moved by our Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, a cradle Catholic. He certainly falls on the conservative side of the political debate with the issues noted above. And yet, during the Pontiff’s visit the Speaker of the House for the United States of America Boehner cried like a baby. He is one who recognized the gravity of the moment and the meaning to the world that the US government would so welcome and promote a man of Pope Francis’ humble leadership. Who knows, maybe the Pontiff’s words will stretch his leadership on immigration or the environment?

Nuance, appreciation for the other, dialogue, engagement…elements of faithful living that serve any citizen well in a pluralistic society.

This post is part of a series of reflections on leading the inaugural class of the Gotham Fellowship as part of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando’s Center for Faith and Work. 

A collection of Pope Francis’ quotes on capitalism, for your consideration:

  1. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.”

  2. “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

  3. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new.”

  4. “[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

  5. “Almost without being aware of it, we end up being 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.”

  6. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

  7. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

  8. “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

  9. “Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.”

  10. “Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.”

  11. “[B]ehind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called ‘the dung of the devil’. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”

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