In Bahrain, to conclude the Bahraini Forum for dialogue, Pope Francis reiterated his notion of a Church and a people which engage in dialogue and resilience and that opposes the “powerful who look after their own interests.”
The theme of the powerful and that of the elites are central themes in Pope Francis’ preaching. Visiting the University of Roma Tre in 2017, Pope Francis pointed the finger at so-called elite education, instead advocating popular education. And also, the Global Educational Pact launched by the Pope on the eve of the pandemic aims, after all, to create new educational paths.
The world of Pope Francis seems to be very clear: on the one hand, there are the powerful, those who make decisions; on the other hand, there is the people, called to resist, to become a group, to create the antidote to the good of a few, and to do good for all. And again: on the one hand, there are the elites, who close in on themselves, who perpetuate their power, and who create a distance with the poor, poorly educated, outside the decision-making circuits, marginalized even in the access to resources.
What Pope Francis puts forward in his speeches appears to be a gigantic class struggle in which the Church is obviously on the side of the poor. Bergoglio himself, during the Argentine dictatorship, said that some principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church could easily seem Leninist or Trotskyite. Yet, they were the principles of the fathers of the Church.
Pope Francis’ worldview, however, appears to be a fundamental paradigm shift in the history of the Catholic Church. The reason is different from what you might think.
Throughout her history, the Church has always defended the poor, the orphan, and the widow (these are the biblical categories) on the basis that we are all brothers and all children of the same father. However, there was another guiding principle given by the Gospel itself: “giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
In other words, the Church does not aim at a political transformation of society. Instead, she points to the conversion of hearts and starting from that conversion to create a more just society, more suited to God, more founded on integral human development.
It was not a clear path but a bumpy one. We had to go outside the mentality of the time and create a new civilization. It was a work on culture, which was accompanied by religious work. As Benedict XVI said in his memorable lecture at the College des Bernardins in Paris, the Benedictine monks who shaped, formed, and created European civilization created culture but moved by a single principle: quaerere Deum, to seek God.
In the Pope’s vision, however, everything seems to become more pragmatic and, in some way, political. In the preferential option for the poor, which has always been the basis of the Church’s activity, he also sees an actual political act, almost revolutionary.
However, the gap between the powerful and the non-powerful remains. So, instead, the goal is to overturn the balance to put the poor on top. Again, the model is that of the Magnificat: “He has overthrown the mighty from their thrones. He has exalted the humble.”
But this elevation was not intended to exchange positions of power but as a renewed dignity accorded to all.
While Pope Francis argues that a spiritual renewal and conversion of hearts is necessary, and he dwells on the Ignatian concept of “corruption,” which is first and foremost corruption of the soul, in reality, he seems to promote a world in which the poor will remain poor. The rich will stay rich, which depends only on the dignity given to them.
The Catholic Church instead worked not because there were no elites or in opposition to the elites, but to create elites. Formation in Catholic schools, open to students of all faiths, has always been considered of the highest level.
Not only. Starting from the concept of the dignity of the human person, the Church has founded hospitals and spread a culture of care for the sick that was practically non-existent before.
The numbers, released on the occasion of World Mission Sunday, prove it: the Church manages 72,785 preschools worldwide attended by 7,510,632 pupils; 99,668 primary schools for 34,614,488 pupils; and 49,437 secondary schools for 19,252,704 pupils. It also oversees the education of 2,403,787 high school pupils and 3,771,946 university students.
Church-run health, charitable and assistance institutions worldwide include 5,322 hospitals; 14,415 dispensaries; 534 leper hospitals; 15,204 homes for the elderly, chronically ill, and handicapped; 9,230 orphanages; 10,441 kindergartens; 10,362 marriage counseling centers; 3,137 centers for social education or re-education; and 34,291 other institutions.
Everything tells of a story that does not aim to pit the powerful against the poor but rather to give strength to the poor. To create a world of equals and to do it on the upside. Not by assisting the poor but by making the poor rich. Not by opposing power but by creating new power.
Pope Francis intends to do so, and he says so openly. But then the narrative he carries on, which also reveals a line of thinking, is different, more secular, and less impactful than one might think. It works in the short term, and it works for the media. But it gives the image of a Church that proposes, not a Church at the center of history. And it’s not a question of maintaining relevance. It is a question of having some dignity in the world. The fluid diplomacy, the centralization of decisions on the Pope, and the personalist use of certain circumstances show a Church that wants to have a voice in the world, whatever the world may be.
What Pope Francis shows is a somewhat pessimistic vision, perhaps, and undoubtedly a pragmatic one. But this same pragmatism is a paradigm shift to be defined.