There’s a lot to admire about Pope Francis.
Last year when the conclave of Cardinals voted Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, his friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil sat by his side. Bergoglio said that Hummes “hugged me, kissed me and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor.’”
As a first step in setting the pace for a renewed emphasis of humility and concern for the poor, Bergoglio took his name from St. Francis — one of the most revered figures in the history of Christianity.
But in naming himself after the saint who celebrated self-imposed poverty in the name of Christ — the current Bishop of Rome wants his fellow shepherds to follow his lead.
Last week, the Archbishop of Atlanta, Wilton D. Gregory, agreed to sell a $2.2 million home which he had just recently began to live in. What prompted this reversal of residence is the outcry he received over such lavish living quarters — especially in light of the emphasis of economic simplicity Pope Francis has been advocating.
What is refreshing is that when Gregory made his apology, he appeared genuinely sorrowful for his lapse of judgment. He didn’t seem to be parroting a script from a public relations manual: “How to get the public off your back by feigning contrition.” Rather, he emphasized Pope Francis’ influence:
“He’s called us to live more simply. He also has encouraged bishops to grow closer to their people, to listen to their people. And that, I take as a pretty serious admonition. I’m disappointed in myself because in my nine years, I do believe that I’ve grown very close to the people of the archdiocese. And I think this decision is an aberration rather than a pattern.” (HT: New York Times)
In matters of money, invoking St. Francis offers a fairly direct line to Jesus Christ Himself. Certainly, the Lord had much to say about the subject, consistently linking a passion for purchasing power with a lack of affection for the Father.
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Matthew 6:24 (ESV)
“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Luke 8:14 (ESV)
Money is a Gospel issue because it is an issue of worship, idolatry and devotion. For this reason, even we Protestants can invoke St. Francis on such issues. Where St. Francis teaches us “for it is in giving that we receive,” or “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that have received — only what you have given” — we can affirm such lines as rooted in the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. That is to say, St. Francis “rightly divided” the divine Word on many core Gospel matters.
Invoking St. Francis on other issues — say, social and environmental justice — is a bit more problematic, especially when coming from a Reformed position of Sola Scriptura.
Take for example the Franciscan Earth Corps, a group recently profiled by Religion News Service (RNS), as found online at the PCUSA web site. “Inspired by St. Francis, young adults look to emulate his bond with nature” by Renee K. Gadoua tells about how members of this group are involved in food pantries, hydrofracking and hanging bluebird boxes. Again, all this comes from being inspired by St. Francis — the patron saint of the environment and nature.
This article describes the group as “a social justice group that aims to transform the world in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.” What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, as Christians we are transformed by the Spirit of Christ and as transformed agents of His grace we participate in the transformation that God is bringing about in the world that He so loves. Do you see the difference? We do not transform the world — Christ does.
The article states:
St. Francis, named by Pope John Paul II as patron saint of ecology, is the model corps groups look to as they try to rebuild the brokenness of the church and the world. It’s the message St. Francis is said to have received from Jesus in 1205 while praying at the run-down Church of San Damiano near Assisi, Italy.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to care for God’s creation in ways that are simple and sustainable. But to suggest that “we” are going to “rebuild the brokenness of the church and the world” simply places far too much on human agency.
To say nothing of the assertion of the special revelation beyond the Scriptures that Francis is supposed to have received from Jesus in 1205. That claim is patently unaligned with the Protestant and Reformed understandings of the closed nature of the Biblical canon.
The article goes on:
Kelly Moltzen, a registered dietician who belongs to the Bronx chapter, is concerned about the food system’s effect on the environment. “Livestock production creates 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “Eating more fruits and vegetables that are naturally made will make us healthier and the environment more healthy.” Her chapter recently built a greenhouse and screened “A Place at the Table,” a documentary about hunger. The group is considering creating a church garden or food-share program to supply fresh produce.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with building green houses, watching movies and considering supplying food to the undernourished. But did you catch the distinction between livestock production and fruits and vegetables? The latter are considered by this registered dietician to be “naturally made,” which begs the question how she thinks livestock are made.
Also, does she know that if we sufficiently ramp up the production of high protein legumes to the levels necessary to actually replace the protein Americans consume in eggs, chicken, beef and pork that the carbon offset from the diesel used to run all the farming, cultivating, processing and trucking necessary would be an offset to the emissions she’s decrying?
I’m all for improving access to more healthful foods, I’m just not for arguments that are based in special revelation and tied to “Sister Moon and Brother Wind.” God is the God of Creation, and He has entrusted it to our care. Yes, we should be very good stewards of it. But we don’t need to organize special clubs to do this. If this is a part of the calling of the church then let the spirit of Christ rule and reign. No additional saints necessary.
Finally, it’s just wrong to use/misuse either church history or the Scriptures to push a new vision of the God-given mission of the church.
But that hasn’t stopped PCUSA and other political/church advocates from doing just that. The latest is an attempt to claim that the Bible actually demands a $10.10 national minimum wage.
Again, I’m not against people being paid fairly for their work. What concerns me is the co-opting of the religious arguments for a progressive social agenda.