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What the media can't grasp about Pope Francis
His message is more revolutionary than people think
 
"Who am I to judge?" was just the beginning.
"Who am I to judge?" was just the beginning. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

It seems each time Pope Francis makes some remark on poverty, the hornet's nest is stirred anew. When the pope called for the end of an "economy of exclusion," partially through the "legitimate redistribution of wealth," on May 9, the media buzz grew deafening.

But, as Marc Tracy at The New Republic notes, the content and intention of the pope's remarks differ broadly in reporting depending on the political agenda of the outlet:

When Pope Francis speaks about inequality, as he does frequently... liberals and conservatives gather and, like the blind men with the elephant, claim that the singular thing he has just said means completely different things. [The New Republic]

Tracy speculates that the enormity of the response Pope Francis receives might be due to Catholic social teaching intersecting with the contemporary zeitgeist, which is perhaps best encapsulated by the Occupy-ism of the last few years. In other words, the world is ready to talk about inequality, redistribution, and an "economy of exclusion" for independent reasons, and the pope's words — which are very much in keeping with Catholic tradition — merely resonate because ears are ready to listen.

But as Tracy notes, this has led to a great deal of distortion of Pope Francis' message. Fox News pundit Sean Hannity took Francis to task on his radio show, claiming that the pope's message was tantamount to condoning voluntary shiftlessness, and excoriating him for discouraging the virtues of work. As foreign to the original intent of Pope Francis' remarks was a piece at The Huffington Post favorably comparing the pontiff with the enormously popular French economist Thomas Piketty, currently all the rage for his pro-redistribution secular work entitled Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The tendency of Francis' words to be heavily distorted in favor of particular political narratives has therefore earned him a great deal of attention, which is undoubtedly a positive aspect to arise out of such heavy media focus, given the pope's stated focus on evangelism.

It has also almost guaranteed him the eventual fate of all media delicacies: Being spit out after being chewed up. There is already talk of having reached "Peak Pope," the point after which the novelty of the pontiff wears off and all future reporting sinks into the bland and bored, if it is done at all. So it goes with starlets and pop singers whose pain and torment become a source of gleeful but fleeting pleasure for the media, and so it will likely go for Pope Francis.

Which is precisely what one would expect from "an economy of exclusion." Let me explain.

When Pope Francis criticizes an economy of exclusion, he does so because in the Catholic view the economy, like all structures built up by human hands, is good insofar as it furthers the common good of humankind. If the economy becomes so overwhelmingly exclusive that it serves to further the wealth of a few while virtually guaranteeing the poverty of the many, then the structure itself has been corrupted and perverted from any morally right purpose. The same can be said of any work taking place within the economy.

So, when the sole purpose of mass media — undoubtedly a force with an enormous potential for good — pursues profit even at the expense of forwarding a genuine, truthful account of the world, then the perverse sort of economy Francis repeatedly criticizes has manifested itself emphatically. The message has been consumed by an ulterior motive, and the motive doesn't have any relationship to the common good: This is the nature of an economy of exclusion.

Which isn't to say that the media is obligated to act as a mouthpiece for Pope Francis, but rather that its ethics should obligate it to at least a genuine commitment to the truth. In the case of Pope Francis' message, the obfuscation is all the more complicated by a struggle between political factions to make use of it, a process many media outlets are altogether too eager to participate in.

But the reality is more profound than the immediate political appropriation of Francis by various political interests. Now, as in the time of Jesus, a sincere dedication to serving the poor is revolutionary. It's all the more revolutionary when it implicates not only individual sentiments but a totalizing arrangement of society around the service of the poor and the on-the-ground commitment to real friendship and fellowship with them. It's simultaneously more revolutionary than Hannity's brushing off of the poor as lazy and stupid and more revolutionary than Piketty's reforms toward a temporal material justice.

This view of the right order of things is the most significant takeaway from Pope Francis' remarks on the economy. With any luck Pope Francis will remain a voice in political discussion even after the media has made its buck off of him precisely because his message is revolutionary enough to persist through the media's monotonous fog.

 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

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