There are those on the left who are selectively embracing the Pope's words and those on the right who are smoothing them, largely, over. (To be fair, Douthat does not entirely persuade even himself on this point, so I think this is an honest effort, but ultimately a failure.)
So, that's why the Exhortation is worth reading in its own right; there are things here that are hard for those all over the theological and political spectrum to hear, and the Pope is neither a political liberal nor a conservative.
Before getting to cases, let me praise his own his ideal of a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets;” it put me mind of the great Leonard Cohen song "AMEN":
Now to cases. Pope Francis is, first and foremost, a Christian--specifically, a Roman Catholic, but some aspects of his thought go beyond the Roman Catholic context while others (his views on women's ministry, for example), will not travel as well outside that context. But even there, Pope Francis is striving to find a way to articulate a specifically Roman Catholic conception of the equality of women:
103. The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace” and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.Now, let me be clear; I find this entirely unpersuasive, and view the gender of the Twelve Apostles to be reflection of the culture of the Age of Christ and not of the inherent roles of women and men. And, as I wrote almost a year ago, the complementarian viewpoint to my mind especially errs in that it assigns roles based on gender, without the traditionally non-dominant gender being heard. For all of Pope Francis's obvious goodness and decency, this is a man, following a line of men, defining for women what womanhood means, spiritually, and telling women for whom his characterization does not ring true that their felt experience is false. But my point is not to disagree for the sake of being disagreeable, by emphasizing my own Liberal Anglo-Catholic views; just to note that this is a deeply Roman Catholic document.
104. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power “we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness”. The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”. Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops.
However, for those who admire (as I do) the Roman Catholic Church's social teaching regarding money, the poor, and the economy, there is a lot here that I think transcends sectarian boundaries. Let me acknowledge with Douthat here that much of what Francis writes is well embedded in the Catholic tradition--you need only review the 1985 Compendium Justice in the Marketplace, and many of the same themes in the context of labor rights were sounded in I was reminded of the best essays delivered at the 2011 conference I spoke at, The Theology of Work and Dignity of Labor, published in the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.
All that said, I think the Pope goes considerably further; his emphasis on these themes is worthy of a close examination:
No to an economy of exclusionThe Pope's emphasis and forceful reassertion of the centrality of the Catholic teaching regarding justice and the marketplace may begin a reckoning with a problem I noticed four years ago in American Catholicism, after reading a NYT Magazine profile of Robert P.George:
53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. 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. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. 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.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
54. In this context, some 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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. 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. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
No to the new idolatry of money
55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
56. 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. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. 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.
No to a financial system which rules rather than serves
57. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.
58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. 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 to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.George, in short, and his followers, strove to relegate the Church's social teachings to mere bromides, feel good statements that could be made without effect.
The Pope's rejection of this and his scorn for laissez-faire economics reminds me of the great rejection of theology constructed in its defense by Charles Gore:
It must have been expressed originally in sublime unconsciousness that the whole industrial system, then in its glory, had been built upon a basis of profound revolt against the central law of Christian morality, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” There are few things in history more astonishing than the silent acquiescence of the Christian world in the radical betrayal of its ethical foundationThe Pope is less pithy, but on the same page, I think.
[Edited to remove typos]