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Senior Correspondent

I have never been a big fan of papal pronouncements, at least not since the Vatican II statements instigated by John XXIII. The theological and social conservatism of the more recent popes have — it seems to me — taken both the Christian faith and the world in which it plays an important part,in exactly the wrong direction. So it was with only modest enthusiasm I took an hour to read through Evangelli Gaudium (the joy of the gospel), the first major statement by the newly installed Pope Francis.

For some time I have felt a growing rumbling about the massive economic inequality in the United States.  It is not that there ought to be control of people’s ability to get very rich, but that the manipulation of the economy, including our tax laws, guaranteeing fiscal unfairness must be, and I believe will be, addressed. Sooner or later it will dawn on the vast American middle class that they have been had.

And now, added to an already growing crescendo of voices, comes the new Pope, who not only identifies the problem, but states plainly what has caused the dislocation. But hear it in his words.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.  … The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

Rush Limbaugh called the Pope’s remarks “pure Marxism,” a clear indication that he neither understands Marxism nor the Christian faith. Other American conservatives have declared that the Pope, any Pope, ought to stick to religion and stay out of politics. Is not poverty a critical religious issue?

While the church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, has a spotty record when it comes to justice for the oppressed, it is good news to see a religious leader out front instead of dragging along somewhere in the rear, or making pious religious statements about God rewarding the righteous.

Many other parts of this “Apostolic Exhortation” repeat the tired arguments about sexual issues and the place of women in religious life, even if in other venues Francis has sought to downplay these issues. But when it comes to economic justice, it is refreshing to see one of the world’s great religious leaders lay it on the line. His voice, added to an already cascading call for economic fairness, needs to be heard by Catholics — and for that matter — by the rest of us.

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