A People’s Church?

Pope Francis may be inspiring hope in the church, but Catholic radicals point the way toward an even brighter future.

Dorothy Day (right) at the Kansas City Catholic Worker house in a photo first published in July 1974. National Catholic Reporter / Albert de Zutter

Pope Francis’s first-ever visit to the United States — which began on Tuesday and includes stops in Washington DC, New York City, and Philadelphia — has generated immense excitement. Revelers thronged the National Mall to witness the pontiff wave from the iconic popemobile. Inside Madison Square Garden, he delivered an inter-faith mass before twenty thousand worshippers. Philadelphia expects its population to double for his open-air mass tomorrow on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The visit of any pope occasions an outpouring of enthusiasm. But Francis, a septuagenarian Argentinian formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has grown enormously popular since his tenure began in 2013 — especially among liberal Catholics. His comparatively inclusive rhetoric has made a troubled, authoritarian institution — long held back by its antediluvian views on sexuality and chronic failure to police endemic sexual abuse internally — seem a bit more benevolent.

His encyclical this year acknowledged the reality of climate change and called for unified action from world governments. He also decried unfettered capitalism in terms that, if analyzed through rose-tinted glasses, almost appeared socialist. Unregulated global capital, according to the pope, is a

new tyranny . . . invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Francis reaffirmed this sentiment in his speech before Congress on Thursday, saying, “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

This rhetoric is a boon for left causes. As a moral figure relatively immune to partisan criticism, Francis dispenses moderate left critiques that — in the world of US political discourse — are often lazily (though effectively) dismissed, and he does so before a massive global audience. His pronouncements against income inequality lend moral credence to the struggle of movements like Fight for 15 and the message of political figures like Bernie Sanders. (Fully aware of the symbiosis, the Sanders campaign sent a newsletter with the subject head “Why we must listen to Pope Francis” following his Thursday address.)

Nevertheless, while the pope’s statements may advance egalitarianism in debates over economic policy and climate change, the institution he leads remains diametrically opposed to core progressive principles.

In Francis’s church, we see the same rigidly patriarchal worldview. Abortion is still considered a mortal sin — despite Pope Francis’s recent direction for priests to forgive the act — so women are stigmatized within their communities for exercising control over their own bodies. Women are still excluded from the priesthood. Consider too its hostile stance toward transgender people and its opposition to gay marriage, and it becomes evident that the church remains in the business of marginalizing the oppressed.

The church’s reactionary nature, of course, goes much deeper than retrograde views on social issues. Francis heads a church that has long been hostile toward progressive movements, deploying its influence to counter left-wing governments and intellectual currents while actively participating in authoritarian power structures.

Take, for example, the collusion between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. The church helped legitimize the fascist dictator. In return, Mussolini granted the church the right to educate fascist youth organizations — providing access to the minds of millions of Italian children in the 1930s. His government also furnished the Catholic clergy with substantial financial gifts.

This sinister partnership was more than a matter of convenience; it was in part predicated on the ideological similarity between the two reactionary institutions. As Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Kertzer notes, the alliance between the church and the National Fascist Party partially stemmed from the pope’s desire to counter the country’s growing socialist movement.

To be sure, it’s unfair to blame Francis for the church’s historical foibles. But he is a product of this deeply conservative institution. To put the point starkly, he rose through the ranks of the same institution that legitimized murderous right-wing dictatorships. The question, then, is whether a charismatic and moderately progressive pontiff can alter the fundamentals of such a reactionary leviathan. And, if not, what can?

Pope Francis, to his great credit, name-checked Day in his address to Congress:

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints.

Francis was right.

Catholic teachings were at the heart of Day’s efforts to advance equality and justice. Her Catholic Worker Movement operated charity houses and cooperative farms across the country, providing services to both the urban and rural poor. The offices of the Catholic Worker — the newspaper she cofounded with the French Catholic socialist Peter Maurin — functioned as an organizing hub for progressives and religious activists. She also covered working-class movements in its pages.

Controversially, Day believed that politics was a useful and necessary vehicle for serving the poor, a radical stance that contravened the practices of a church establishment content with token proclamations extolling the meek and the destitute. Francis’ speeches to Congress and the United Nations indicated some support for political intervention on behalf of the marginalized. And this shift may broaden the scope of the church’s work.

Day, however, advocated for a more sweeping program that included direct action, civil disobedience, and non-denominational coalition building. She worked with civil rights groups, picketed alongside workers, and, for years, her and other pacifists refused to participate in civil defense drills to protest atomic weapon proliferation.

Day spoke to the church’s internecine divide between action and inaction in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, writing that she refused to believe that Christ “meant [for us to] remain silent in the face of injustice.” She lamented the callous, aloof bureaucracy that did little to nothing for the impoverished faithful:

The scandal of businesslike priests, of collective wealth, the lack of a sense of responsibility for the poor, the worker, the Negro, the Mexican, the Filipino, and even the oppression of these, and the consenting to the oppression of them by our industrialist-capitalist order — these made me feel often that priests were more like Cain than Abel.

If it is refreshing to see the leader of the church pay homage to a Catholic radical like Day, it is also interesting that she popped up alongside Martin Luther King Jr. King has undergone a postmortem makeover. Politicians of all stripes cherry-pick his gentler quotes and cite his nonviolent activism while omitting his anticapitalist, anti-imperialist views.

Will Day – whose profile just grew significantly following Francis’s reference and whose sainthood is also championed by the likes of conservative Archbishop Timothy Dolan – undergo a similar treatment? Or will his praising of Catholic radicals and assailing of inequality result in a new progressive praxis for the church?

The answers are unclear, but the church’s long history of marginalizing and suppressing dissent within its ranks should chasten those hoping for left transformation from the top.

Amid pitched battles between workers and management, Pope Leo the VIII issued his Rerum novarum (Rights and duties) encyclical in 1891. Labor and capital each deserve their fair share, the pope wrote; private property itself is inviolate. That suspicion of socialism has had a lasting legacy, informing how reactionary figures within the church respond to radical ideas promulgated by their coreligionists. Even when the Pope lauded Day, he acknowledged that the “spirit of enterprise” is an essential component to “an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive, and sustainable.”

Consider too the contempt that Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — expressed for Liberation Theology, a strain of Catholicism that swept Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s and prioritized the oppressed.

Writing in 1984 as the prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger argued that the idea of a people’s church was “a challenge” to a Catholic hierarchy that was “willed by the Lord Himself.” Within Liberation Theology, Ratzinger said, there is a

denunciation of members of the hierarchy and the magisterium as objective representatives of the ruling class which has to be opposed. Theologically, this position means that ministers take their origin from the people who therefore designate ministers of their own choice in accord with the needs of their historic revolutionary mission.

Here we see the church’s anti-democratic spirit laid bare. We see the reason it has historically drawn the ire of leftist revolutionaries. Forget a church that recognizes the dignity and equality of all adherents, one that works to alleviate suffering and improve people’s lives. The bureaucracy and its leadership embody God’s will, Ratzinger insists, and thus deserve the reins of power. This arrangement enables the church to enforce a conservative view of Catholicism that reinforces the economic status quo.

Ratzinger delivered his words just four years after San Salvadar Archbishop Oscar Romero, a prominent figure in the Liberation Theology movement, was gunned down in El Salvador. A strident critic of US interventionism, Romero infuriated the church hierarchy with his public denunciations of the ruling class. In a period that witnessed US-backed juntas across Latin America, the church elite was busy purging itself of left theology while right-wing governments murdered its key proponents.

During the 1970s, Francis — then Bergoglio — headed the Jesuit order in Argentina. His conservative backers pushed him to isolate progressive clergy. By his own admission, Francis carried out his responsibilities in an authoritarian manner, thereby contributing to the right-wing climate. In his first interview as pope in 2013, he expressed regret for his behavior during this period. Romero — more for his renown in Latin American than for his politics — recently entered beatification, the last step before sainthood. A sign of the papacy’s softening tone, certainly.

Pope Francis has yet to similarly recognize Day. The fact that she had an abortion in her early adulthood has long proven expedient in denying her sainthood, an assessment of her moral character that is both reductive and typically chauvinist. But Francis’s inclusion of Day in his speech could signal an intention to break church taboo and renew the drive for her canonization.

This would be a very welcome development — especially if her ideas remained intact and unbowdlerized post-beatification.

Day provided a framework for a more activist church, one actually committed to its constituent parts. Moreover, her vision involved a church that not only acted on behalf of its own followers, but one that supported the disenfranchised more generally. She created alliances that bridged denominational and religious differences, tactics predicated on Jesus’s unqualified directive to assist the poor. In the pages of the Catholic Worker, Day wrote passionately about the incompatibility of following the Lord’s teachings and remaining mum on the injustice of poverty:

I am sure that God did not intend that there be so many poor. The class structure is of our making and our consent, not His. It is the way we have arranged it, and it is up to us to change it. So we are urging revolutionary change.

For Day, a foundational quality of the Catholic faith was admittance into the greater body of humanity. Each individual is an essential component and — just like the communion in popular Catholic theology — a physical manifestation of Christ himself. In Day’s case, however, the imperative to serve the poor wasn’t sectarian, but generalized: the inherent dignity of each human being demanded as much.

Focusing less on evangelizing, her faith inspired her to look outwards. The progressive social structures she helped create through the Catholic Worker Movement may have possessed an air of secular leftism, but they were, for Day, idyllic visions of what the Catholic Church could be: a collection of institutions operating outside of capitalism that worked to improve people’s lives.

Day, Romero, and scores of other progressive Catholics constitute a minority tradition within the church that has consistently bucked its hierarchy in favor of the oppressed. It is exciting to hear Francis — the most influential Catholic on the planet and the leader of that hierarchy — praise their work and selflessness. His opposition to grotesque inequality and environmental degradation give momentum to movements fighting such obscenities.

That Francis also oversees, and is the progeny of, an institution fundamentally opposed to democratic change should give us pause.

But even if Francis fails to fundamentally alter the church through action, his choice of inspirational figures could help cultivate progressive intellectual currents within Catholicism. With her status elevated and ideas circulating, Day’s legacy may inspire the faithful to not only hold the church’s traditionalist bureaucracy to a higher standard, but to push for a more just realization of the church as well.

The end result would benefit the disenfranchised across ideological and denominational lines.