Saturday, May 10, 2014

Zaccheus for Today

Yesterday, Pope Francis received in audience the Secretary-General of the U.N. and the officers of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board. International agencies and organizations often meet in Rome. When they do, a papal audience is often included on their agenda. Papal comments and those of the visiting group on such occasions are often courteous and general. Yesterday's papal address, however, was more interesting than usual.
After the usual generalities affirming the efforts of the various agencies represented, the Holy Father got more specific: an important part of humanity does not share in the benefits of progress and is in fact relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Future Sustainable Development Goals must therefore be formulated and carried out with generosity and courage, so that they can have a real impact on the structural causes of poverty and hunger, attain more substantial results in protecting the environment, ensure dignified and productive labor for all, and provide appropriate protection for the family, which is an essential element in sustainable human and social development. Specifically, this involves challenging all forms of injustice and resisting the “economy of exclusion”, the “throwaway culture” and the “culture of death” which nowadays sadly risk becoming passively accepted.

Echoing Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope's Post-Synodal Exhortation, this was obviously meant as an actual challenge to international agencies and organizations - and the constituencies they represent. It is a challenge to recognize and actually address some of the serious structural problems that characterize contemporary political and economic life, identified by the labels "economy of exclusion," "throwaway culture," and "culture of death."

But the Holy Father did not stop there. We usually tend to address issues of social and economic justice under the general rubric of natural law. We do so for good reason. Policy proposals generally have to resonate with universally accessible moral principles if they are to have any hope of ever being implemented in a pluralistic society. But the Pope's voice can never be that of just another international bureaucrat. Whether speaking ad intra or ad extra, whether within the Church or out to the world, he is always the Vicar of Christ proclaiming the good news - "the joy of the Gospel." And what better way to do that than by retelling a Gospel story? In this case, it was the familiar story of Zacchaeus the rich tax collector (Luke 19:1-10) which the Pope chose to recall. Zacchaeus, Pope Francis reminded his audience of international bureaucrats, made a radical decision of sharing and justice, because his conscience had been awakened by the gaze of Jesus. This same spirit should be at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity. The gaze, often silent, of that part of the human family which is cast off, left behind, ought to awaken the conscience of political and economic agents and lead them to generous and courageous decisions with immediate results, like the decision of Zacchaeus. Does this spirit of solidarity and sharing guide all our thoughts and actions, I ask myself?

(That image of "the gaze of Jesus" awakening Zacchaeus' conscience identified with "the gaze" of those "cast off" and "left behind" is one which I think will not be forgotten in future discussions of this subject!)

Without waiting for an answer to his rhetorical question, Pope Francis filled in further some of the specifics of what "this spirit of solidarity" requires of us: Today, in concrete terms, an awareness of the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters whose life is sacred and inviolable from conception to natural death must lead us to share with complete freedom the goods which God’s providence has placed in our hands, material goods but also intellectual and spiritual ones, and to give back generously and lavishly whatever we may have earlier unjustly refused to others.

The approach adopted by the media since this Pope's election has been to try to present him as in some fundamental way different from his predecessors. Countering the media's persistent preference for such a hermeneutic of discontinuity, Pope Francis began his talk by invoking his two recently canonized predecessors, Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, and their passionate concern for integral human development. He ended by invoking the encyclicals of his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 42-43, Centesimus Annus 43) and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate 6, 24-40), stating that equitable economic and social progress can only be attained by joining scientific and technical abilities with an unfailing commitment to solidarity accompanied by a generous and disinterested spirit of gratuitousness at every level.

(One can read the Pope's entire short   address to the UN officials, at

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