Pope Francis, Brazil, and the Lessons of Detroit

Pope Francis arrives in Brazil this week for World Youth Day. The pre-emptive spin in the mainstream media is that he will “focus” (NYT yesterday) on “social justice.” Doubtless, he will speak about poverty and solidarity – common themes in his speeches and homilies. But if the Bishop of Rome only pushes what Albert Camus once called “the usual mouthwash,” he’d not only be working largely outside his competence. He’d be neglecting his main task: evangelization, which is to say, the eternal salvation of souls.

Given Francis’s power of combining simplicity of life and calls for reform with profound spiritual themes, the media’s preferred social justice scenario is a simplistic pipedream. In the “focus” story, this loopy characterization appeared: “The trip, whose nominal purpose [emphasis added] is to have the pope meet with and speak to participants at the World Youth Day, a conference of Catholic youth here. . . .”

If this kind of sophistical idiocy can appear in our “paper of record,” it’s going to be amusing seeing what emerges from the laptops of reporters and commentators working the shoals of the lesser outlets.

World Youth Days, founded by John Paul II, have been taking place since 1985. At Manila in 1995, 5 million young people showed up (the largest human gathering ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records). Tens of millions more have attended elsewhere over the years, including a million in Paris.

The Catholic Church in Brazil is facing a sharp decline among young people. A Pew report noted just last week that over 20 percent of Brazilians, the country with the most Catholics in the world, have left the Church for evangelical and pentecostalist groups, which are growing in similar fashion worldwide. Francis knows this and will address it. Why even hold a WYD if all you want to do is make speeches on social justice?

But journalists of a certain cast cannot take evangelizing young people seriously.  So instead of accurately reporting the central purpose of the trip, we are now being told that, beyond this “nominal purpose,” the pope may even have declared a “truce” with liberation theology.

The evidence? He’s allowed Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero’s cause for canonization to go forward. But Romero, who was killed by a government death squad while he was saying Mass, like Francis, carefully avoided endorsing Marxist “liberation theology,” even as he championed the poor and oppressed.

Amidst all this shadow boxing, we need some hard facts. Brazil is troubled at the moment. Young people have been protesting corruption, waste, poor educational and health services, and police tactics. Even the decisions to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, which will cost tens of billions, have caused demonstrations.

According to reliable sources, Francis will engage this youthful zeal, calling for better uses of new wealth and better government to administer it.

         Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio De Janeiro

By the way, the Brazilian government that young people are protesting has, for a decade, been run by the radical Left. In 2003, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) and his Workers’ Party took over. His chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, succeeded him in 2011. They’ve both been more moderate in office than out. But like President Obama, they’ve found there are few simple answers to deep economic and political problems, which now involve global as well as local factors.

Brazil is in the “BRIC” group, with Russia, India, and China, and has a rapidly growing economy (5 percent annually). It’s following a typical pattern – expanding wealth that, paradoxically, produces a revolution of rising expectations.

Francis knows that there’s a lot of wishful thinking when it comes to development – the only real way to help large numbers of the poor. As cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he shunned Liberation Theology because of its Marxist assumptions. There’s no surer way to condemn the poor to a holding pattern than imposing command economies like the ones that impoverished and alienated people in the Soviet Bloc.

But even what seems sound solidarity can quickly turn disastrous, as we’ve seen in Detroit’s recent travails. In its heyday, Motor City promised things it thought could last forever. Indeed, a judge just ruled that its bankruptcy declaration is illegal because a Michigan law prohibits public employees’ benefits from being reduced. Ever.   

Some are already speaking about how the Church or churches or “we” need to save that poor suffering city. It’s a humane idea. But the main question, always, is how?

When German Chancellor Willy Brandt visited Brazil in the 1970s, an archbishop asked him to force Volkswagen plants there to pay the same wages as in Germany. Though a Social Democrat, Brandt pointed out that such a move would solve his unemployment problem back home, since the plants would move back to Germany. But it wouldn’t do much for Brazilians.

Anyone, Christian or secular, who wants to get into the economic salvation business needs to be quite modest and mercilessly realistic. If moral passion were sufficient, the saintly Dorothy Day would be a great savior of the poor. Her political and economic views went nowhere – rightly so – because they couldn’t possibly benefit the very people she wished to help.

Raising up the poor takes economic growth and even the dreaded pursuit of real “profit,” something many Catholic reformers see as the problem rather than the solution. But it was the old capitalistic, profitable auto industry that once made Detroit a thriving metropolis.

Pope Francis is nobody’s fool. As he speaks to the youth gathered from all over the globe this week, he will tell them that it’s an essential Christian duty to care for the poor and seek various ways to improve their lot. But he will also speak, as is his wont, about much else that constitutes the fullness of Christian life.

Look for it. It will be there. But don’t expect to find it in the mainstream media.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.



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