Habemus Papam

In the week that sees the inauguration of Pope Francis, historian of Catholic charity Carmen Mangion shares her thoughts with us on the VAHS Forum.

Cardinal Bergoglio surprised many in 2001 when he washed and kissed the feet of 12 AIDS-related patients at Muñiz Hospital in Buenos Aires, saying “society forgets the sick and the poor”.

Pope Francis, on his first day after his election, reminded his fellow cardinals in the Sistine Chapel Mass that ‘If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be?’  He responded to his own question with ‘We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.’

This was unlikely meant as a putdown of the work of NGOs but more a reminder to Roman Catholics that within Catholic doctrine, charity has a special meaning.  At the heart of its motivation is a link to the values espoused by Jesus in the gospel.  Thus charity is not simply alleviating the physical deprivation of poverty.

Nineteenth-century Catholic charity in Britain was aimed at educating and providing for the needs of the Catholic poor; linked to this were spiritual aims, one prominent intent being to bring wayward Catholics back to the sacraments and the rites of the Church.  And while Catholic acts of charity were plentiful, Henry Manning (1808-1892), Cardinal of Westminster from 1865-1892, voiced his disappointment with Catholic absence in the nineteenth-century British reform movements such as the abolition of slavery.  He believed that Catholic charity was much too parochial and needed to address the universal.

Catholic charity today, in part due to the interpretation of Vatican II documents, has embraced the concept of social justice (though some areas of social justice can be contentious), and this has broadened the horizons of Catholic charity.  As the aims of charity shifted over the past fifty years, with that came a focus on tackling structural issues of poverty and injustice.  That said, there are still complaints of the ‘sticking plaster’ approach that meets short term needs but doesn’t address long term problems.  These issues are relevant to numerous charities as a recent blog post by Eleanor Davey indicates.

What Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, has modelled over this past week has been interpreted by Catholics and non-Catholics as a simpler, less ostentatious approach to the papacy.  His own personal history as the son of migrant workers, his vocal solidarity with the poor and someone who proclaims the ‘unjust distribution of goods’ as a ‘social sin’ that limits the ‘possibilities of a fuller life’ indicates he will encourage charity that is linked with social justice.  His interpretation of social justice, however, will remain tied to orthodox church teachings, which means issues of contraception, same sex marriage and women as priests and married clergy will not be within the Vatican’s interpretation of ‘social justice’. This will disappoint many Catholics.  Even so, his placement of the poor and social justice at the centre of his papacy has sent a welcome message.

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