BUENOS AIRES — José María Poirier is an Argentine journalist and has been the director of the Catholic magazine Criterio since 1996. He first met Father Jorge Bergoglio when the priest was the superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. The journalist later interviewed him several times when he served as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Poirier authored the introduction of the book On Heaven and Earth, a series of dialogues between then-Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka. In the book Francis, Our Brother, Our Friend, journalist Alejandro Bermudez interviewed Poirier about his longtime coverage of the current Pope. And, recently, for the Register, Bermudez asked Poirier about Pope Francis’ views on economics, as outlined in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
In the United States, a debate has broken out over the statements Pope Francis has made regarding the injustice in today’s economic systems.
I think it is worth noting that in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope writes that he is not an expert on political, social, economic and other issues. That is to say, although later he explicitly addresses them, he offers the qualification that he himself is not an expert on economic, political and social issues.
What drives him to make some very strong statements is, in part, his adherence to the Church’s social doctrine in the historical sense; and secondly, his belonging to the Latin-American world. This could already be seen, for example, in the document approved by the Latin-American bishops in 2007, at their meeting in Aparecida, which was drafted under his leadership, but also fundamentally in his pastoral experience.
Over the years, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was particularly dedicated to those most in need and had a great desire for justice and non-exclusion for people. Consequently, when he says that the youngest do not have a future and that society has no interest in the elderly, in some way he is denouncing what has been called “savage capitalism” or an economy without a human face, and that is what angers him and what he is confronting.
The Pope caused surprise in economic and academic circles with some of his statements in the exhortation, not only in the United States, but in Latin America as well.
I think we need to understand in this regard that the Pope is not coming at this from a technical perspective, but, rather, with a prophetic outlook, in the sense that statesmen, economists, politicians and leaders have to find effective ways to more fully integrate those who are on the sidelines, as the Pope says, those who are left out in a society that is not even willing to acknowledge this tremendous injustice.
In any case, I think that some exceptions need to be made. For example, no one is oblivious to the fact that there is less poverty in the world than in past decades. It’s enough to just consider the phenomenon in Asia, in China and India and in so many other countries. And even the United States, which, despite its economic crisis, is a booming country that continues to offer opportunities; and Europe, which is also experiencing its own crisis, is a welfare society that has brought millions of people into the economic world. What I mean by this is that we cannot take this as a judgment about the system in itself, but, rather, about a certain marked insensitivity in political and economic leaders towards a huge number of citizens who are excluded from exercising their citizenship because of their economic and political marginalization.
Is the Pope condemning a specific economic system, such as the free market?
No. His approach to the economic system is understood better when it is compared with the way in which he condemns war in the specific case of Syria, and he writes the famous letter to President Vladimir Putin and in some way forces President Obama to reconsider his position regarding the conflict. The Pope was not offering a technical response, in a political sense. In fact, Syria is still experiencing a very complex crisis.
What he was saying was essentially three things: The first is that every war entails more injustice and innocent deaths; that every war is driven by economic interests, such as those of the manufacturers and vendors of arms; and that religion is obligated and all religions in general are obligated to raise their voices in support of peace. In other words, it is an ethical and religious message, not a technical message.
What is the Pope’s vision regarding the role of the state in promoting social justice?
There is a tendency in Latin America, from which the Pope is probably not immune either, to grant the state an exaggerated role in requiring the distribution of wealth. The weak point lies in the fact that the question of the creation of wealth has not been sufficiently expounded or studied in the framework of the Church’s social doctrine. This question is still pending. And the Pope has no intention of shutting down discussion on this, but, instead, he wants to open it.
Is the Pope opposed to the market economy?
We can’t draw this conclusion. Based on his experience in Argentina and in particular in Buenos Aires, it is clear that he has traditionally considered Marxist socialism an evil for society. But after the successive economic crises and those created by certain international banks, he has also warned of the need to condemn the so-called “speculative world,” the sector that does not create wealth, but instead engages in financial speculation.
This also emerges in part in Cardinal Bergoglio’s personality as a confrontation with the Argentinean government of the Kirchners, first that of Nestor Kirchner and later that of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. He was confronting a government whose policy was pseudo-progressive but that in reality allowed many officials and businessmen linked to the government to illicitly amass wealth and was unconcerned with inflation and the problem of poverty, which continues to be one of the most serious problems in Argentina — the lack of the creation of genuine jobs and exclusion.
It has been shown, for example, in recent worldwide reports on education in different countries that in Argentina, despite the political discourse, the quality of education has fallen greatly, which makes the idea of economic and political recovery impossible.
What does the Pope mean when he speaks of a Church of the poor and for the poor?
It’s a message related to the name he chose as pontiff. By choosing the name of the saint from Assisi, Francis, in some way, wants to distance himself from a bureaucratic Church, particularly in the Roman Curia, attached to certain ways of doing business or to an image of wealth.
I think that Francis knows what he means when he speaks about a poor Church that is for the poor, that he is confronting, internally, within the Catholic Church certain sectors that are very traditionalist and attached to the wielding of power and to the advantages of wealth. So Francis believes that the Church cannot have a voice that condemns injustice and that advocates fraternity, equality and equal opportunity for everyone, unless it is based on a testimony of austerity and transparency in the Church that allows her to have a voice that will be heard on the international stage.
And consequently, I think there are three main directives that he is pushing, which in some way he has inherited from his predecessor, Benedict XVI — although he could not find a way to implement them. These are: transparency in Vatican financial affairs; a call to austerity to all the cardinals, bishops and priests of the world; and zero tolerance for the scandals of sexual abuse by priests and religious.
I think these are three key elements in the internal reform that Francis is implementing, and, ultimately, it is an acknowledgement that the Church’s greatest concern should be for the victims of injustice and abuse and that only through a credible testimony can religion raise its voice in the social and political world.
Some believe that the Pope is proposing a total equivalency between fundamental moral issues such as the right to life of the unborn and the problems of social and economic injustices.
This confusion is cleared up when we understand that traditional Jesuit discernment distinguishes between principles and pastoral care, without separating them.
Regarding principles, Francis is a man faithful to the Tradition of the Church, both in the case of abortion, as well as in so many other issues of moral doctrine. The main difference, in any case, is his vast pastoral experience. In the exhortation, he speaks about a hierarchy of values, about an effort to understand the gradualness of moral doctrine. That is, while in principle, the errors and sins of men are condemned, a hand is always extended to the one who is wrong or to the sinner, because the Church’s role, according to Francis, consists in transmitting God’s message — the message of mercy — so that all men and women can have a chance to be better. I think that is an important aspect for understanding his message.
Alejandro Bermudez is the Register’s Latin-America correspondent.
This interview was translated for the Register by Doug Ford.