Faith Matters
11:35 am
Wed December 11, 2013

Is Pope Francis Really 'The People's Pope'?

Originally published on Thu December 12, 2013 7:53 am

Time magazine has dubbed Pope Francis its Person of the Year, calling him "The People's Pope." This title comes weeks after he criticized aspects of the global economy and "unbridled consumerism" in a document called an apostolic exhortation. Host Michel Martin recently spoke with a group of practicing Catholics about how Pope Francis has inspired them in their faith.


Interview Highlights

Author Michael Sean Winters: What the pope's exhortation puts into focus

Very prominent Catholic conservatives like professor [Robert] George, George Weigel, have spent the last 10 years telling us that there were five nonnegotiables for Catholics in the public square. Abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia — they never included poverty. Well, clearly the whole thrust of this document is that if you are serious about evangelizing, if you want to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, then [you had] better put concern for the poor front and center. And this is not just individual charity — one on one — this is a requirement of our society and therefore, of our state.

The Rev. Leo Patalinghug: What many Catholic priests are saying about Francis' message

We're all talking about how this is challenging us. There's going to be tendencies in every one of us to try to be in the virtuous mean — it's as dizzying as trying to stand and equalize a seesaw. It is very difficult to do. By our brokenness we're going to be pulled to the left and to the right, and he's challenging us to not go there. He's challenging us to — as Cardinal Dolan says — to be human, to really exercise your Christianity not from your brain or from your pocketbook but from your heart.

Columnist Gayle Trotter: the message she gets from the pope

As a Catholic, I have a responsibility to reach out to those in my community and to help them, and further — not just my community, but the country, continent and most importantly the world. And I think when we look at the bottom of the Gospel, it's not justice — it's grace. And we all have the benefit of receiving the grace of God and we all have the responsibility of what we do with the grace that we've received to go out and to preach the Gospel, the joy of the Gospel.

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Time Magazine announced its person of the year for 2013 and the winner is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis. The publication cited his ability to capture the, quote, imaginations of millions who'd given up on hoping for the church at all, unquote. But not everyone will be pleased with the choice.

Pope Francis recently caused a stir with a document called an Apostolic Exhortation - it offered a pointed critique of the global economy and what the pope called unbridled consumerism. It led to a lot of reactions, both in and outside of Catholic circles, including this one from conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH: Somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him. This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.

HEADLEE: Well, that's one point of view. Host Michel Martin, recently spoke to a diverse group of practicing Catholics for another - father Leo Patalinghug, a Catholic priest with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, conservative columnist Gayle Trotter - a practicing attorney and practicing Catholic - and Michael Sean Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter. She began by asking them what it was about Pope Francis's exhortation that made it so divisive.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: I think there's several important parts, and I think one of the things that's been most commented on the media is the socioeconomic critique of laissez-faire capitalism as we know it. And he explicitly said trickle-down economics, which is a phrase that has never been uttered by a pope before. And I think that's part of this style of this pope is it's very plain spoken. You can't parse or spin this guy. It's pretty clear. And there are three parts of that, one is first that he finds the current economic system unjust in its results. It leaves too many poor people.

The second, which is related to that, is that the game seems to be rigged to have winners and losers, and that a Christian socioeconomic vision doesn't permit human beings to be losers. And the third part of it, which I think has gotten the least amount of comment, is the idea that this system that we have creates a kind of spiritual poverty that is absolutely coincident with its creation of material wealth. And that applies as much to those who - of us in the affluent North as it does to the global South.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Gayle Trotter, you are a conservative, among other identities, how did you read it? I mean, as we heard Rush Limbaugh's very well-known conservative, you know, pundit talk show host and he read it - and he's not the only one - as kind of an attack on capitalism. Is that how you heard it?

GAYLE TROTTER: No, the word capitalism is not in the document at all. And the title of it is "The Joy of the Gospel." So we just finished a year of faith, a year of evangelization. And when you look at that, the fact that the pope is out there making these statements that are being noticed by the right, the left, the wealthy, the poor - everyone is interested in what this pope has to say. And it's very exciting to me that we're having this conversation.

And for me, to look at the pope - when he became pope he took on the name Francis - and we think that the original Francis, St. Francis, made a statement saying, preach the gospel always and when necessary use words. And the exhortation that we're discussing is "The Joy of the Gospel," it's the joy of preaching the good news. And I think that the left is listening to what this pope has to say because he's open to them. He's talking to them. He's part of them. He's the voice of the poor.

MARTIN: But the left aren't the ones who are reacted with outrage. I mean, there have been outraged columns by - you know, in Forbes and, you know, Rush Limbaugh, as we mentioned, but, you know, Forbes and other media outlets which are associated with the conservatives. Why that?

TROTTER: I think you have to understand his history coming from Argentina. I don't think that this "Joy of the Gospel" document can be taken as an indictment against the U.S. because he is the head of a billion Catholics around the world. We have - you're talking about an economic system, there's not one global economic system. It is different from country to country to country.

And he's addressing - right before he makes the comments about the trickle-down economy, he says, I am addressing you from a pastoral perspective. He's not an economist. He's not a politician. He is something so much greater than that. Politics, Father Richard John Neuhaus said, is how we order our lives together and faith is how we order our relationship with God. It's the revelation of God. And so we understand that the left can learn from his actions and not just his words.

MARTIN: Is there anything the right can learn from him?

TROTTER: Oh, always, always. There's a conflict - C.S. Lewis talked about this - the conflict between totalitarianism and individualism. So if we can avoid either of those extremes, the devil always wants to push us into one of those extremes, but we all need to be careful not to go towards totalitarianism or individualism.

MARTIN: Father Leo, has this document changed the conversation among Catholic leaders and laypeople?

FATHER LEO PATALINGHUG: So you want some priest gossip. That'll be great.

MARTIN: Yes.

PATALINGHUG: I'll be happy to.

MARTIN: Yeah I want to hear it.

PATALINGHUG: So at the dinner table, we're all talking about how this is challenging us. There's going to be tendencies in every one of us. To try to be in the virtuous mean is as dizzying as trying to stand and equalize a seesaw. It is very difficult to do. By our brokenness, we're going to be pulled the left and to the right, and he's challenging us to not go there. He's challenging us to, as Cardinal Dolan says, be human. To really exercise your Christianity, not from your brain or from your pocketbook, but from your heart.

MARTIN: Michael Sean, how do you read both what the pope said and also reactions to it? Just give us your insights. Also based on the fact that you blog and you have a very active kind of social media presence and you hear - you're in the kind of stream of these conversations.

WINTERS: Yeah, I mean, I'm actually grateful to Rush Limbaugh for voicing what I think a lot of Catholic conservatives are saying quietly and over the tables. And I, unfortunately, I include some bishops in that. I think some bishops have been quite outspoken or at least very grudging in the respect for this pope. I think groups like the Acton Institute, which is a kind of libertarian Catholic think tank that has been trying to, you know, peddle its wares with some success recently.

You know, I think this document kind of closes the door on certain ways of approaching the public's ware. Very prominent Catholic conservatives like Professor Robbie George, George Weigel have spent the last 10 years telling us that there were five nonnegotiables for Catholics in the public square - abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia - it never included poverty. OK, well, clearly the whole thrust of this document is that if you're serious about evangelizing, if you want to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, then you better put concern for the poor front and center. And this is not just individual charity, one-on-one, it is - this is a requirement of our society and therefore of our state.

It very clearly says that he rejects those people who deny the state the right to intervene on behalf of the common good. The fact of the matter is justice is at the very heart of the gospel. And if you're going to be serious about preaching that gospel and you're not putting the issue poverty front and center, you're not doing the job.

MARTIN: Gayle, what about that? Do you think he's changed the conversation and made poverty - elevated poverty - as a central concern for the faithful?

TROTTER: Yes, absolutely because he is the voice of the poor. And I think we can disagree about ways that the government can help people who are struggling and suffering in these situations, but the point of this pastoral exhortation is that individually, as a Catholic, I have a responsibility to reach out to those in my community and to help them. And to further from, not just my community, but the country, the continent and, most importantly, the world.

And I think when we look at the bottom of the gospel, it's not justice, it's grace. And we all have the benefit of receiving the grace of God. And we all have the responsibility of what we do with the grace that we've received, to go out and to preach the gospel, "The Joy of the Gospel," this letter - the title of. And we can disagree about political systems that will alleviate poverty and suffering, but we all can agree that we have an intimate, individual responsibility to aleve suffering in the world and to spread the gospel.

MARTIN: That was going to be my question actually - to the degree that each of you feels comfortable answering it - I was going to ask each of you, as a person of faith in this tradition, how you plan to respond to this exhortation? And so, Gayle, you started us off. Anything you wanted to add to that? Is there something that is different now because you heard this message?

TROTTER: It is a clear reminder that we should be giving until it hurts. And I think that it is very easy - for me, personally. I'm not going to speak for other people, but it's very easy to let ourselves off the hook and think that we've done enough because we become very comfortable in our mindset. But the truth is we need to continue to give and when we give to the point where we hurt, we're going to grow. We're going to grow spiritually. And we're going to not have to stay in that level, that plateau. We need to give more. We need to sacrifice more because, of nothing else of Christianity, the underlying root and theme of Christianity is sacrifice.

MARTIN: Michael Sean, I know that you are a journalist, but you are also a person of faith. Do you mind if I ask you how you hear the pope's message and is there a way in which you personally plan to respond to it?

WINTERS: Yeah, I mean, I think there is this, as Gail said, there is this challenge for all of us to change, to grow, to stretch in this. As I also think you found in Benedict, you just had to look for it. You know, and I admired the density of Benedict's sermon, but this guy is so accessible. That said, as a kind of left-of-center Catholic, for the first year I'm just going to enjoy having the wind at my back rather than in my face and ride with it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Speaking of straightforward, Father Leo, final thought from you?

PATALINGHUG: I love the word economy because we actually use it as a theological term, the economy of salvation, which basically means every person plays a part and every person effects the good news for everybody else. So for me, the first thing I'm going to do is, first of all, be a little bit more grateful. Secondly, I actually am vowing poverty. I'm making a change in my own life, and I'm actually making a vow of poverty. And the work that I do right now is going to hopefully affect people so that I can start feeding people's bodies and not just their minds and their souls.

MARTIN: What does that? You mean you're actually going to make feeding more of a part of your ministry?

PATALINGHUG: Yeah, well, with - the work that I do, not only being a parish priest and authoring, I also work with Grace Before Meals, a movement to bring families back around the dinner table. And so I cook for people 'cause it's an easy way to touch hearts and minds. You know, who's going to complain if they're eating well? And I just want to make sure that the work that I do is going to be actively trying to go out and working with the poor, working with people. But not just to feed them, you know, the fish, but teach them how to fish as well.

MARTIN: Well, if I may in the season of grace and peace, may I wish you grace and peace to all of you. Thank you all for coming. That was Father Leo Patalinghug. He's a priest with the Archdiocese of Baltimore and author of cookbooks, if you've picked that off as well, a pastoral priest. And Gayle Trotter, she's a practicing attorney. She's a conservative columnist. And Michael Sean Winters, an author and writer for the National Catholic Reporter, all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much for joining us.

PATALINGHUG: Great to be here.

WINTERS: Thank you.

TROTTER: Blessings to you.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Tune in for more talk tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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