Bruce Duncan

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Former President Rajapaksa invited Pope Francis to visit Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, flickr cc

Despite growing objections from some conservative Catholics and business circles, Pope Francis has 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 as it is 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 said on 13 January 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

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Pope Francis in the Philippines, Joey Echano (copyright)

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 to some of the counties in Latin America. He was clearly moved by the faith of the crowds greeting him, but also by 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. 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”.

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 in which Australia has retreated from making significant contributions: the Abbott government sharply cut its overseas aid budget, reducing 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 readily-understandable way. He seems to be becoming somewhat of a pope for all Christians, and is also intent on deepening communication with people of other world religions and of the secular West.

Pope Francis & responsible parenting

Some media leaped upon the Pope Francis’s view that Catholics need to exercise responsible parenthood, and were not bound to have more children than they judged appropriate. On the plane from Manila to Rome on 19 January, Pope Francis said: “Some think that – excuse the word –in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.” He said there were “so many, many licit ways” for couples to regulate their family planning.

Some commentators saw this as a decisive shift in Catholic views. But Francis is in part recalling what Pope Paul VI said in Humanae Vitae (#10):

In relation to physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a large family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.

Responsible parenthood implies, therefore, that husband and wife recognise fully their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values.

In the final analysis, it was up to the couples to decide, taking all these factors into account as well as they could. It was made clear that the encyclical did not claim to be an infallible statement.

Unavoidably, the debate about Humanae Vitae became focused on use of the contraceptive pill, and even in Catholic circles opinions on its interpretation polarised. One of the writers of the encyclical, the late Fr Gustave Martelet SJ, commented that the teaching was to be regarded as an ideal for couples, who had to make decisions in light of their circumstances. Various episcopal conferences endorsed this line of interpretation.

Other commentators interpreted the issue as a black or white matter of obedience, of law and order, not taking account of the flexibility required in reaching such moral decisions.

Yet the theology of Pope Paul VI was one of being strict in principle but liberal in practice. In an address to the General Chapter of the Redemptorist order in 1973, he urged those present to “find out how much indulgence is necessary, how much, I would say, ‘elasticity’ the Law of God itself is capable of assuming, for the very purpose of adapting itself to the weaknesses and requirements of man’s human condition”.

This was not always understood, and some Church authorities later insisted on conservative interpretations. It is likely that Pope Francis will try to find satisfactory pastoral and social responses to issues of family planning.


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