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Pope Francis highlights social justice, inequality and climate change

Bruce Duncan

Despite growing objections from some conservative Catholics and business circles, Pope Francis continued promoting efforts to solve problems of poverty, inequality and the environment as essential demands of faith and the Gospel.

In his last public appearance in December 2014, Francis invited all believers to an examination of conscience, especially whether ‘the poor, weak, and marginalised are the centre of our thoughts and daily actions.’

‘We need a great daily attitude of Christian liberation to defend the poor rather than defending ourselves from the poor, and to defend the weak rather than defending ourselves from the weak.’

Sri Lanka

In this context, Pope Francis in January highlighted peace, reconciliation and respect for human rights in Sri Lanka, scarred by years of civil war.  It was a propitious moment, as the election of a new government opened the door to new efforts at resolving animosities and injustice.

At the official welcoming ceremony with the newly elected President Sirisena and civil and religious leaders, Pope Francis on 13 January said that for too long Sri Lankans had been ‘victims of civil strife and violence. What is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division.’

At an interreligious gathering in Colombo, he emphasised the needs of the poor and destitute, and called for renewed efforts at reconciliation and cooperation among religious traditions. ‘For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.’

The Philippines

A country with a rapidly growing population of nearly 100 million, 80 percent of whom are Catholic, the Philippines faces enormous problems with poverty, corruption, a Muslim insurgency in the south and disastrous typhoons. Pope Francis would be aware of many similarities with some of the counties in Latin America. He was clearly moved by the faith of the crowds greeting him, but also of the desperate economic plight of so many.

He reiterated his call for the people to concentrate on dealing with poverty and inequality, and insisted on the need for political leaders, ‘outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good’, to build ‘a society of authentic justice, solidarity and peace’.

In his address to the Filipino president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino and diplomats in Manila on 16 January, Francis called on the country 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.’ He endorsed the Filipino bishops setting aside 2015 as a ‘year of the Poor’, and called on the people ‘to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor’, ensuring none were excluded.

Addressing clergy and religious personnel in Manila Cathedral, he said that the Church in the Philippines is called to ‘combat the causes of the deeply rooted inequality and injustice which mar the face of Filipino society, plainly contradicting the teaching of Christ.’

‘Only by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters.’ This will help Christians proclaim ‘the radicalism of the Gospel in a society which has grown comfortable with social exclusion, polarisation and scandalous inequality.’

He urged Church personnel to be ‘present to those who, living in the midst of a society burdened by poverty and corruption, are broken in spirit, tempted to give up, to leave school and to live on the streets.’ ‘The poor are at the centre of the Gospel.’

The encyclical on the environment

Pope Francis is also extremely concerned about issues of climate change and the environment. En route to Manila, the Pope told reporters that he hoped the encyclical would be ready by June or July. Cardinal Turkson and his team had done the first draft, and then others, with the Pope, had produced a second and then a third draft. He had sent this for comment to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Secretariat of State and theologians for comment. Francis intended to finish the draft in March, and then send it to translators.

Terrorist attacks

Pope Francis said everyone was astounded by recent terrorist attacks in France, Australia and elsewhere. He said ‘one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s religion, that is, in the name of God.’ ‘However, we always think of our own history: how many religious wars we have had! Think of the “night of Saint Bartholomew” [a massacre of Huguenot Protestants in France in August 1572, numbering some thousands.]… We have also been sinners in this.’ He affirmed freedom of religion and of expression, but ‘without offending, without imposing and killing.’ In a criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s provocative policies, he added that it is also necessary to respect the faith of others. ‘One cannot provoke, one cannot insult others’ faith’.

However, we always think of our own history: how many religious wars we have had! Think of the “night of Saint Bartholomew” [a massacre of Huguenot Protestants in France in August 1572, numbering some thousands.]… We have also been sinners in this.’
- Pope Francis

Priorities for Francis

In his address to Vatican diplomats on 12 January, Francis focused his hopes and prayers on two key processes: ‘the drawing up of the post-2015 Development Agenda, with the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals, and the drafting of a new Climate Change Agreement’ both of which depended on securing peace internationally.

These are two areas where Australia has retreated from making significant contributions: the Abbott government sharply cut its overseas aid budget and – and hence reduced our support for the Sustainable Development Goals to reduce world poverty; and Australia has all but abandoned serious attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet Pope Francis is winning a hearing in many parts of the world, and finding dialogue partners also in the Orthodox world and among Protestant evangelicals. He is articulating universal human and Gospel values in a way that people can readily understand.  He seems to be becoming somewhat of a pope for all Christians, and is also intent on deepening communication with people both of other world religions and of the secular West.

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Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne