On Pope Francis’ challenge

The timing of Pope Francis’ Nov. 24 Apostolic Exhortation on poverty is pitch perfect, teasing out competing themes. Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas. Seasonal indulgence confronts the transcendent.

There is a natural tension, the anxiety of striving to do the right thing in a material world. The Pacific Northwest sits at the confluence of a get-rich spirit typified by the 1897 Klondike gold rush, extending to billionaire Jeff Bezos; and, a religious heritage that once defined Northwesterners, emphasizing a non-showy sensibility.

Today, the Northwest is a religious mosaic. Roman Catholics, Mormons, Presbyterians, Jews, Muslims. The number of “unchurched” and agnostics ticks up. There’s the still-popular “prosperity gospel,” which insists you can embrace your loot and salvation, too (pay no attention to the Gospel of Matthew and getting a camel through the eye of a needle.)

A parlor game for history buffs: Was the following actually written by Pope Francis?

“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”

Pope Francis it is. The most frequently cited passage of the pope’s exhortation sounds like a sectarian attack on Western capitalism. A close reading, however, and it’s just as much a treatise on the immutability of human nature.

“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,” the pope writes. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive 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.”

The pope’s well-footnoted declaration merits more than a quick scan of provocative quotes. “In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects,” Pope Francis writes.

There’s nothing secondary about tackling poverty head on, and that requires government, philanthropy, religious institutions and individual initiative. Religious pluralism is a guiding principle, but spiritual values still inform politics. The pope’s message stands as a personal challenge to believers and nonbeliever alike, that greater justice and inclusiveness rests with us.

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