Pope Francis's in-flight press conferences--freewheeling, unscripted, even unredacted (at least for the moment)--have produced quite a bit of news. Who could forget "Who am I to judge?" Or the time the pope said that a friend who talks smack about his mom "is going to get a punch in the nose"? Reporters know that asking Francis the right question in just the right way might elicit a headline-worthy response. No surprise, then, that on the flight back to Rome following the pope's visit to South America, where he took globalization to the woodshed, a couple of enterprising reporters wanted to talk economics. Roll tape.
Noting how often Francis had spoken of the poor over the past several days, one German journalist wanted to know why the pope didn't say more about "the middle class, that is, the working people, the people who pay taxes, normal people, like the Greeks." All right, he didn't actually mention the Greeks. He did, however, want to know the pope's message for those non-abnormal, responsible payers of taxes.
Instead of asking the reporter whether he realized that Bolivia--where he delivered his stinging rebuke to purveyors of globalization--is the poorest country in South America, that 60 percent of its 8 million residents live below the poverty line, a quarter of them in extreme poverty, Francis responded graciously: "Thank you very much, that is a nice correction. You are right, that is a mistake on my part. I have to think about that." The Catholic News Agency made it sound like Francis had never considered this before: "You're right, I'll have to come up with something!" But Francis didn't quite say that, and he wasn't done answering the question.
The world is polarized. The middle class becomes smaller. The polarization between rich and poor is great, and perhaps this led me to disregard that. I speak about the world, in some countries it is fine, but across the world polarization is visible and the number of poor is large. So why do I speak of the poor? Because it is the heart of the Gospel.
Offering more from the normality report, someone with CBS News asked Francis whether he realized that all his talk about consumerism's regrettable habit of consuming the poor was making Americans feel bad about themselves: "One of the strongest messages of this trip was that the global economic system often requires the mentality of profit at all costs, at the expense of the poor. This is perceived by the Americans as a direct criticism of the system and their way of life. How do you respond to that perception?"
As I said in Evangelii gaudium, "this economy kills".... And as I said in Laudato si', this criticism is not something new. I've heard that some criticisms were made in the United States. But I have not read them and I have not had time to study them well, because any criticism must be implemented and studied, after which comes dialogue.
And until he's had the chance to engage his critics, the pope explained, he "has no right" to respond to the critiques. "I have to start studying these criticisms and then talk a bit." What might he find if he launches such a study? A syllabus of this:
- Gifted humorist Dennis Prager: "There could not have been a gift that more accurately represents this pope’s value system than Christ crucified on a hammer and sickle."
- Paint enthusiast Maureen Mullarkey: "If a man strays from the contours of his office—bends magisterial capacity to purposes for which it not intended—what then is tact?" (Protip: not this.)
- Microphone torturer Rush Limbaugh: "This global-warming encyclical--that may be Latin for 'rant'...leaves no doubt what the political leanings...of the pontiffs are." That is, he's a Marxist.
Perhaps Francis's aides will show him the hot take from noted theologian of marriage Thomas D. Williams, PhD: "Francis said plenty of other things about the economy [in South America], but in the addresses referenced by the two news outlets, the pope never even uttered the word 'capitalism' at all, let alone unbridled or global capitalism." Obviously the pope is thinking of some other globalized economic system--given how swimmingly capitalism is going here.
Or maybe Francis will come across the critique of seer of things previously unseen George Weigel: "I don’t believe for a minute that Pope Francis was pleased when President Evo Morales of Bolivia, one of the worst of the new authoritarians, presented him with a sacrilegious hammer-and-sickle 'crucifix' at their exchange of greetings and gifts shortly after the Pope arrived in La Paz." Actually, the pope accepted the gift, modeled as it was on one crafted by the slain Jesuit Luis Espinas, called it "protest art," said he didn't find it offensive.
The fact that Francis let Morales "get away with such a stunt" really bugs Weigel.
I can well imagine what the famously irascible Pope Pius XI would have done, had Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister of the Third Reich, presented him with a swastika-crucifix; Herr von Ribbentrop would probably have had a pontifically inflicted dent in his thick skull.
Because that was a time when popes were men. It wasn't so long ago, Weigel reminds us, that Pope John Paul II brought about the ouster of Pinochet. John Paul "confronted" Pinochet "behind closed doors" back in the late 1980s, Weigel explains, or imagines. Just two years later the general allowed himself to be voted out of office. Obviously, John Paul got tough, cracked some skulls, and voila, dictator vanquished. It was man time. None of this namby-pamby Franciscan accommodation. You could tell that John Paul was serious about dealing with Pinochet because a decade later, when the pope's secretary of state, Angelo Sodano, tried to save the general from being extradited, he was allowed to keep his job, a job that would later afford him the opportunity to intervene on the behalf of another of his admired friends, Marciel Maciel.
So yes, perhaps Pope Francis should have a look at what his American critics are saying. But study? I wouldn't pull an all-nighter. He might end up with a dent in his head. From beating it against his own desk.