Pope Francis never stops talking about the poor — and that's good. The question is whether we Americans can understand what he's saying.
Francis's message about the poor isn't very new. It's at least as old as the Society of Jesus (the official name of the Jesuit order, which dates back to 1540). Most of his message actually dates back to Christ's apostolate on Earth in the early first century.
If we listen closely to the Holy Father, we can hear a message that is challenging to all Americans, Left and Right. He calls on us not only to help the poor overcome their material poverty, but also to love and welcome them. Also — and this gets confused — we are to consider the poor a blessing.
"Poverty" and "blessing" are difficult ideas for most people to take together, especially policy-minded folks who care about the poor. But it's an unsurprising combination from a Jesuit priest who has taken a vow of poverty.
Obviously we don't want to keep people poor. So what is he talking about?
When Francis curses inequality, he focuses mainly on the problem of "exclusion." In his 2012 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis began his discussion of the poor in a section titled "the inclusion of the poor in society."
Every one of us, Francis writes, is called to become "an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society."
Yes, he writes about "aid to the poor," and bringing about more equal distribution of wealth, but it's never a simple accounting matter for him. Francis implores us not merely to give some money to poor people or make sure some affordable housing is built for them somewhere across town. If you are including poor people in society, that implies that there are poor people — that you haven't solved poverty. Importantly, Francis also never suggests that poverty can be cured.
Francis "is realistic enough to know that we're going to have poor people," papal expert Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame told me. It's not something most anti-poverty crusaders in the U.S. like to admit, but it's an inevitable conclusion for a man like Francis, whose purview is not the wealthy U.S. but the entire world.
This isn't fatalism for Francis, because in poverty he finds blessings. "I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to," Francis writes.
"God's heart has a special place for the poor," Francis reminds Christians, "so much so that he himself 'became poor.' The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor." Christ was born in a humble manger to a poor woman.
"Blessed are you poor," Christ says in the Gospel according to Luke, "yours is the kingdom of God."
Including the poor in our lives enables our "appreciating the poor in their goodness," as Francis writes.
Francis's message on the poor indicts those who forget about the poor (which is nearly all of us at some times). It indicts those who assert the poor have no right to the hard-earned money of the better-off (a widespread view on the American Right). Francis, though, also indicts those who want to simply ship money off to the poor — voluntarily or through the government — and leave it at that.
Will Francis's message reach the Brooklyn neighborhood known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)? There, a sensible-sounding plan to move some families from an overcrowded, mostly-white, mostly-rich elementary school to an under-filled poor minority school has caused an uproar from the neighbors.
"Urban whites are liberal up until it's time to integrate their schools, " liberal journalist Jamelle Bouie, Slate's Chief Political Correspondent, wrote on Twitter about DUMBO. The standard defense from these Brooklyn liberals, as conservative Reihan Salaam tells it, boils down to: Let's spend more money on public schools and make the poor black school better — just don't force me to send my kids to the bad school.That won't fly with Pope Francis.
No amount of welfare or charity will eliminate poverty from the world. More importantly, no amount of charitable contributions or tax dollars can fulfill our responsibility to love the poor and to include them in our lives.
Data show that poor people benefit financially and educationally when they're in more socio-economically diverse neighborhoods and schools. That's half the reason we need to include them.
But Francis's emphasis on Mary and Jesus in a stable reminds us that the need goes both ways. We need to include the poor in our lives — not just for them, but for us.