Column: The Pope’s challenge to the powerful

Published on January 20, 2015.

At the final press briefing Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, held with Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, the long-serving Vatican spokesman attempted “a synthesis of the trip”—Pope Francis’ first visit to the Philippines, his second to Asia, and his seventh outside Italy since his election in March 2013. The substance of the Pope’s remarks was the second element of Lombardi’s synthesis.

He noted “the coherence of the message of the Pope: integrity, corruption, scandalous inequality, poverty.” Especially that last point: “The poor at the center of the Gospel.”

This was an echo of Francis’ own summary of his message to the Filipino faithful, which he explained in the news conference on the flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Manila. (Hats off to Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan, who if I’m not mistaken became the first Filipino journalist to ask Pope Francis a direct question.)

“The central message of this trip will be the poor, the poor who want to carry on; the poor who suffered from Typhoon ‘Yolanda’ and who are still suffering the consequences; the poor who have faith and hope. The people of God, the poor, even the exploited poor, those who suffer many injustices, material, spiritual and existential. I’ll think of them when I’m in the Philippines.”

If the Pope’s central message in Sri Lanka, the first leg of this Asian journey, was reconciliation in a country that has just emerged from the nightmare of civil war, the “coherence” of his message for Filipinos was defined by the inescapable reality of continuing poverty in the Philippines.

I was especially struck by his plea the next day that Filipinos reject corruption—not so much because he said it and said it so plainly, in a hall filled with politicians and diplomats, as because of how he defined what was at stake in the struggle against the corrupt. Two passages in particular from his address in Malacañang, his first public statement in the Philippines, bear close study.

“As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good. In this way they will help preserve the rich human and natural resources with which God has blessed this country. Thus will they be able to marshall the moral resources needed to face the demands of the present, and to pass on to coming generations a society of authentic justice, solidarity and peace.”

Three quick points. First, the reference to “many voices” is a reminder of how plugged in, how up to date, the Vatican actually is on the Philippine situation. This connectedness is a function of the Roman Catholic Church’s simple organizational structure: The parish priest reports to the bishop of the diocese, and the bishop reports to the Pope. (In an important sense, the Church is the first multinational.) Under Francis, too, the Vatican’s diplomatic infrastructure enjoys a new, higher level of trust. Of course, it is only natural that the Pope’s reading of the Philippine situation would be influenced the most by the Filipinos he most frequently consults.

Second, the “challenge to integrity” the Pope issued (the phrase is from the speech he prepared for the youth assembly in the University of Santo Tomas, which he set aside in favor of spontaneous remarks) is connected to a finite gift, a blessing with limits: If political leaders are honest, he said, “they will help preserve the rich human and natural resources with which God has blessed this country.”

Third, governance has a moral dimension, which requires moral (that is, noncorrupt) leadership. “Thus will they be able to marshall the moral resources needed…”

But that first passage I quoted above merely introduces the second, pivotal one (which Lombardi referenced in two different press briefings).

“The great biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voice of the poor. It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities. Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart… I hope that this prophetic summons will challenge everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor…”

Just one point. I understand this passage to mean that corruption should be defined by its most fundamental impact: It is stealing from the poor. If we understand corruption as that which “diverts resources from the poor,” we would no longer even try to make a moral distinction between money made from the illegal numbers game jueteng and, say, the pork barrel scam. Both steal from the poor: The latter because the funds set aside for government projects end up in private pockets, the former because the betting money comes directly from the poor.

The Pope had much more to say about poverty; his remarks in UST, for instance, explained in unusual terms why poverty is a virtue (“To learn to be evangelized by the poor, by those we help, the sick, orphans, they have so much to give us”). But in speech and homily, he returned to the theme of looking out for those with very little in life.

The statement he had prepared for the meeting in Palo Cathedral (which he was not able to read, but which Lombardi emphasized could be used “as public texts of the Pope”) includes this powerful reminder: “Above all, I ask that the poor throughout this country be treated fairly… Our treatment of the poor is the criterion on which each of us will be judged.”

So Matthew, and yet so new.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion

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