The Programme of Pope Francis According to the Gospel: the Church as Intrinsically a Social Movement to Make the Last First

Msgr. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor

Ponencia presentada a la

Pontificia Academia de Ciencias Sociales
Trata de personas: Consideraciones más allá de la criminalización

17-21 de abril de 2015
Casina Pio IV, Ciudad del Vaticano

‘The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas.
But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think.
For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism.
In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence’.
(Interview with Pope Francis, America Magazine, 30 September 2013)

There are many documents that serve as reference points to understand Pope Francis’ new attitude and the programme of his pontificate. Like Mozart in music, he is creative and renews in different ways the substantive issues that he has in his mind and in his heart, not letting anyone else write or dictate them. He wants to make them his own and to respond to his important experience as a pastor. Of all his speeches I would like to analyse one in particular, perhaps the most spontaneous and significant, which he gave to the young people from Argentina that he met in Rio de Janeiro’s San Sebastián Cathedral. He began by saying: ‘Let me tell you what I hope will be the outcome of World Youth Day: I hope there will be noise. Here there will be noise, I’m quite sure. Here in Rio there will be plenty of noise, no doubt about that. But I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves’.

He explained that young and old must fight together against an exclusive society dominated by ‘financial humanism’, which only seeks profit or its own advantage and so, consciously or not, is committing suicide by marginalizing its future, young people, and its wisdom, the elderly. The Pope’s exact words were: ‘Look, at this moment, I think our world civilization has gone beyond its limits, it has gone beyond its limits because it has made money into such a god that we are now faced with a philosophy and a practice which exclude the two ends of life that are most full of promise for peoples. They exclude the elderly, obviously. You could easily think there is a kind of hidden euthanasia, that is, we don’t take care of the elderly; but there is also a cultural euthanasia, because we don’t allow them to speak, we don’t allow them to act. And there is the exclusion of the young. The percentage of our young people without work, without employment, is very high and we have a generation with no experience of the dignity gained through work. This civilization, in other words, has led us to exclude the two peaks that make up our future’.[1] Therefore, we must act and work to change this status quo.

But what is the starting point to reverse this suicidal trend, especially in the West? It is faith in Jesus Christ. In Kierkegaardian tones, Francis said: ‘Faith in Jesus Christ is not a joke, it is something very serious. It is a scandal that God came to be one of us. It is a scandal that he died on a cross. It is a scandal: the scandal of the Cross. The Cross continues to provoke scandal. But it is the one sure path, the path of the Cross, the path of Jesus, the path of the Incarnation of Jesus. Please do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. We dilute fruit drinks – orange, apple, or banana juice – but please do not drink a diluted form of faith. Faith is whole and entire, not something that you water down. It is faith in Jesus. It is faith in the Son of God made man, who loved me and who died for me. So then: make yourselves heard; take care of the two ends of the population: the elderly and the young; do not allow yourselves to be excluded and do not allow the elderly to be excluded’.

A son of St Ignatius, founder of the Spiritual Exercises, Pope Francis argues that the solution does not lie as much in discussing the essence of Christianity, because it is relatively easy to understand the threshold of mystery, but above all it lies in practicing faith and charity, which is more difficult. In this he is existential like Kierkegaard, who said that Christianity has no essence but is a practice to perform on ‘existence’: we have to become Christ’s contemporaries by actively participating in his grace and in the love of his Spirit. ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ – Kierkegaard writes in Practice in Christianity VI – ‘you did not come to the world to be served, and thus not to be admired either, or in that sense worshiped. You yourself were the Way and the Life – and you have asked only for imitators [Efterfølgere]. If we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, rescue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like [ligne] you’.[2]

Now, in the light of this, what does Pope Francis intend as the programme of his pontificate? He points to the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. When a young man in Rio asked him: ‘What should we do, Father?’, Francis replied: ‘Look, read the Beatitudes: that will do you good. If you want to know what you actually have to do, read Matthew Chapter 25, which is the protocol by which we will be judged. With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else’ (San Sebastián Cathedral, Rio de Janeiro, Thursday 25 July 2013).

Why are the Beatitudes the programme of this pontificate? Because they were the basis of Jesus Christ’s own programme, expressed in the famous Sermon on the Mount. In this Pope Francis coincides with St Thomas Aquinas who states that they contain all the perfection of our lives (tota perfectio vitae nostrae continetur), according to the Reportatio of Petri de Andria.[3] Through them the Lord explains to us his plan, his promise and the reward he will give us, to fulfil our happiness, which is what we naturally aspire to with all our being and actions. In short, the Beatitudes explain and indicate the path and the ultimate prize, that is God’s reward, which is what true happiness is. We all aspire to this happiness but only those who follow and pursue the Beatitudes with perseverance in the practical exercise of their lives deserve it. Therefore, Thomas says that whereas Moses made the commandments his foundation, Jesus Christ promulgated the Beatitudes above everything else, as the synthesis, reduction and project of Christian life.[4]

As St Thomas says in his commentary on Matthew 5, following the famous question of Aristotle’s Ethics, in general, we all aspire to happiness, but human beings differ when judging what it is. Some will think of it as something, others as something else. Today’s mentality, according to the Pope, places happiness in external and material things; worse still: in artificial realities such as money and finance, which is virtual money, the famous ‘derivatives’, or titles derived from other financial entities, which are a gamble between the present and the future, meaning that they increasingly represent a value that is less real and more random. The medium turns into the purpose, the future turns into the present, reality turns into possibility. Incidentally, in this view our Pope is not only inspired by St Francis of Assisi, but also very much by St Ignatius, who had already sensed the existence of modern capitalism’s somewhat evil soul. Let us recall the central meditation of the Spiritual Exercises on the Two Flags: you either choose to be at the service of Christ or on the side and under the rule of Mammona iniquitatis. Moreover, St Ignatius also teaches us that Lucifer instructs the demons first to tempt with a longing for riches, so that men may more easily come to vain honour of the world, and then to all the other vices (SE 139-142).

Many others want money not only for themselves but also to satisfy their own whims. I do not know whether in general you too have noticed that it is characteristic of billionaires to be capricious. It is already underscored in Ecclesiastes: ‘I recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life’ (Eccl. 3: 12). These two false views of human happiness, one based on money and the other on following one’s own whims, lead to corruption, which, according to Pope Francis, is the daughter of Satan. Moreover, corruption is the Antichrist itself, because it produces structures of sin that corrupt the world with never before seen forms of criminality. This is the ‘globalization of indifference’ towards the human person and the common good that the Pope denounced in his homage to the brutal deaths in the sea of Lampedusa: ‘The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!’ (Homily, Arena sports camp, Monday 8 July 2013).

A few others, a little more worthy on this scale of errors, believe that happiness today consists in having an active life according to a golden mediocrity and worldly bourgeois comfort. Yet others believe in sterile theoretical discussions that the Pope qualifies as ‘spiritual worldliness’. All these opinions are false and harmful. Pope Francis, like Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, fights and condemns them with determination, passion and courage.

Currently, the more widespread false opinion is disrupted or, rather, transformed and turned inside out like a glove by the Beatitude that Pope Francis considers central, as is the advice of Jesus Christ himself on poverty: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 5: 3). St Luke, the friend of the marginalized in the Roman Empire, is more trenchant: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours’ (Lk 6: 20). To those who think the kingdom of heaven can be reached by way of riches, by which the highest honours of this world are also obtained, the Lord does in fact promise the Kingdom which comprises wealth and dignity, but via the opposite way, through poverty and service. It is not about dominating but about serving. We see that, thanks to wealth, man acquires the power to commit any sin and to satisfy the desire for every sin: because money can help you obtain any temporal good, as already noted in Eccle. 10: 19, ‘money answers for everything’, and by the great Spanish poet Quevedo, ‘Over kings and priests and scholars Rules the mighty Lord of Dollars. Mother, unto gold I yield me, He and I are ardent lovers; Pure affection now discovers How his sunny rays shall shield me!’[5]

The Pope is rightly concerned about the growing phenomenon of crime, primarily financial crime, but even more of its deleterious consequences, such as the horrific crime of human trafficking that is spreading with the ‘globalization of indifference’, as he terms it in Evangelii Gaudium. Some 2 million boys and girls disappear every year to meet the needs of the growing global sex market of the wealthy, which is euphemistically called sex tourism. Since the International Palermo Protocol against human trafficking was instituted in 2003, this crime has produced over twenty million missing persons, and this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.[6] In this sense, it is clear that a longing for riches is the root of all sin, as St Paul says, followed by St Ignatius and St Francis. Pope Francis sees this link very clearly: ‘The suffering of the innocent and peaceful never ceases to hit us; contempt for the rights of the most fragile persons and peoples are not that foreign to us; the dominance of money with its demonic effects such as drugs, corruption, the trafficking of persons, including children, together with material and moral misery are the common currency’ (Homily of Archbishop Bergoglio, Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, 13 March 2013). At the first workshop on human trafficking we organised at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a psychologist explained how a minority of wealthy people has produced the psychological pathology of the global sexual market. As St Thomas said, there is a deep connection between capital sins, so that one calls and leads to another.

Therefore, ‘Blessed are the poor’. Don’t you agree that this is first and foremost an intrinsically social and sociological statement? Of course this sentence also deserves a theological explanation. Who are the poor really? As Thomas said, firstly, they are ‘the humble who regard themselves as poor; for they are truly humble who regard themselves as poor not only in external, but also in internal things’.[7] Jesus is the master of this attitude: ‘learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart’ and ‘you will find rest for your selves’ (Mt 11: 29). And also: ‘Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (Phil 2: 6). The kingdom of heaven can only be reached through poverty and humility. But what does ‘poor in spirit’ mean? It is not the poor by necessity or tragic circumstances of life. As Paul Ricœur said, we stand with the poor if we fight this poverty, which more often exposes human injustice. We are not with those politicians who love the poor so much that they multiply them!

In other words, the poverty that oppresses an important part of contemporary humanity must be fought vigorously. Here we should open a serious chapter about the aim of the economy and the failure of the many economic theories and ideologies that do not put the human person, justice and the common good at their centre, as the Pope states in Evangelii Gaudium. Social doctrine condemns both the Marxism of the means of production in the hands the state and the neoliberalism of the market without rules. Injustice is evident today in many countries, especially those without Christian and Catholic roots, but if one considers the world as a whole, in a global sense, international injustice is clearly visible with the richest countries taking advantage of the poorest with the arrogance of ‘either you accept this or nothing’. One of the clearest symptoms is the growing tragedy of world hunger already denounced by Pope Paul VI to the United Nations on October 4, 1965 with his famous order ‘to devote to the benefit of the developing countries at least a part of the savings which could be realized through the reduction of armaments’ (Address to the United Nations General Assembly). There have since been many broken promises in this tragedy, which are also severe injustices offending human consciousness, and not only hunger and broken promises, but also injustice for lack of international redistribution, for instance arbitrariness in the management of sovereign debt. For those living in countries with emerging or developing markets who feel unfairly treated by developed countries, this continuing arbitrariness, which is a grave injustice, is another reason to be dissatisfied with a brand of globalization engineered to serve the interests of the rich countries (and in particular of their financial sectors). Today it seems that even the left despises the poor, as French journalist Jack Dion writes in his new essay, Le mépris du peuple.

The poor by necessity or circumstances are not always happy. Those who are happy have made poverty a deliberate spiritual choice. St Paul said that ‘the grace of God has appeared’ and trains us ‘to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age’ (Ti 2: 12): temperately i.e. being reasonable in using the goods of the world and in our own actions and passions; justly, that is, behaving decently toward our neighbours, considering the other as myself, a person as I am person, therefore an end and never merely a means for me; devoutly, namely behaving in the awareness of the existence of God and of His presence in me, and his infinite Providence towards me and my brothers.

Of those who poor and temperate by choice, some have wealth but do not put it at the centre of their hearts, because they are magnanimous and detached: ‘If riches increase, set not your heart on them’ (Ps 62:10). This is difficult, as the Lord himself says in the Gospel of Mark: ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” ’ (Mk 10: 23-25).

Others do not have much wealth, nor does it affect their hearts. Their situation is safer, because the mind is easily separated from the spiritual realities by wealth’s mundane weight and the demands of its administration. Therefore, the latter are said to be poor in spirit, because they are, by virtue of the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, poor with a poverty that is above the human way of acting, that is beyond the natural way: these are the men and women who are truly happy whom the Lord refers to when he says: ‘Blessed are the poor’. Actually, for men and women to be able to discard all worldly goods to the point of not appreciating them at all, they have to live in a heroic and superhuman way,[8] that is, as true disciples of Jesus Christ, poor and magnanimous at the same time.[9] This poverty distinguishes the new law from the old one and even from other religions that are very present today and are often aggressive. The first thing Moses does is promise riches: ‘The Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth’ (Dt 28:1), and in v. 3: ‘Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed in the field’. Therefore, to distinguish the old law from the new, Christ first places happiness in the contempt for temporal things ‘contemtu divitiarum temporalium’, i.e. in the Franciscan ‘marriage with Lady Poverty’, which Pope Francis follows, as is also evident in the name he chose for himself. The blessed all have this poverty that comes from the excellence of their charity.

The opinion of those who put happiness in the selfish satisfaction of their own appetite or whim is censored by the following beatitude: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’. We should be aware that our appetite is threefold. There is the irascible call that seeks revenge against one’s enemies, and this is rejected by the Lord with the beatitude that teaches: ‘Blessed are the meek (beati mites), for they will inherit the land’ (Mt 5: 4). Then, the concupiscent appetite, forever seeking pleasure. The Lord condemns it and turns it around completely when he says: ‘Blessed are they who mourn (beati qui lugent), for they shall be comforted’ (Mt 5: 5). Here the appetite is dual in its goal of infinite pleasure: firstly, it wants no higher law to coerce it in the search for corruption, and secondly, it wants the other to be a subordinate or subject of his. It is just the opposite of the other as myself or myself as other, which Aristotle already spoke about and which is re-proposed today by contemporary ethics (P. Ricœur, J. Marias): there is a desire to dominate and not to serve or ‘minister’. Benedict XVI, during the Mass for the episcopal ordination of the new Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, before the latter left for Venezuela as nuncio, had already said: ‘Priesthood is not dominion, but service’, adding that ‘in civil society and often also in the Church things suffer because many people on whom responsibility has been conferred work for themselves rather than for the community’.[10]

The Lord crushes both unrighteous attitudes. That of not being subordinated to any law, spreading corruption, with the beatitude: ‘Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied’ (ibid., 6). The justice of giving to each his due is the social virtue par excellence and will never be perfect in this life, hence the need to be permanently hungry and thirsty. In this sense, Steve Jobs’ famous words, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’,[11] which resonated so strongly especially with young people all over the world, were certainly inspired by Jesus Christ. The remedy against the desire to dominate is the beatitude: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’ (ibid., 7). Therefore both those who put happiness in external things, especially in money, and those who put it in fulfilling their appetite for worldly pleasure, which causes sickness or corruption, are wrong. Justice and mercy are required together forever because justice without mercy is cruelty and mercy without justice is the mother of all moral dissolutions. As Pope Francis says, mercy is having a heart full of compassion for the suffering of others, particularly those who have been excluded from the banquet of life, be it material or spiritual goods. We have mercy on the suffering of others when we feel it as our own, when we are inclined to help and make a gesture of compassion. In fact, when something makes us suffer, we usually try to find ways to overcome this situation. We are truly compassionate when we try to comfort the suffering of others, our neighbours, just as we comfort ourselves. The suffering of others is double. Firstly, it means not possessing the goods necessary for life, health, education, work, social security, equal opportunities. And here we should have a merciful heart as dictated by St John: ‘If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?’ (1 Jn 3: 17). The second type of poverty is worse, because the human being who sins becomes wretched as an individual or as a member of society. Just as happiness is becoming virtuous and saving others, the most harmful misery is becoming depraved or corrupt and corrupting others. Hence, when we admonish the corrupt in a proper way, in order for them to make amends, we work God’s mercy: ‘At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them’ (Mt 9: 36).

‘Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God’ (Mt 5: 8). This beatitude is one of most necessary in our days full of temptations, especially carnal ones. The heart is God’s temple and we need it to be pure, especially as far as purity of the flesh is concerned: nothing prevents elevation to God as impurity. In contemporary culture, which has both a Marxist and a liberal origin, the sexual revolution ended up having a dark side that became sexual slavery. Although I’m aware that it’s ‘politically incorrect’ to say so, maybe women have a special mission here more than in any other field. The Blessed John Paul II was prophetic in his address about the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem.[12] The saints who are full of justice, charity and its effect which is likeness to God, know the human heart better than anyone else and come into direct contact with God, see God, and experience him.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Mt 5: 9). This is the seventh beatitude according to Matthew. In brief, spiritual life disposes towards two things: a vision of God, and love. Just as purity of heart disposes towards the vision of God, so peace disposes towards the love of God and of our neighbour, for thereby we are called and we are the true children of God and participate in the filiation of his natural Son, Jesus Christ. Thus, through peace we are open to loving our neighbours as ourselves. It is important to note that the prize for being ‘children of God’ is given to peacemakers and those who ‘are persecuted for the sake of righteousness’ for ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’, which is the same thing. Actually, all the previous beatitudes are reduced to these two, and they produce the effect of all the others, which are like their preambles. Who is it that acts with poverty of spirit, grief, meekness, if not those whose hearts are pure? Who is it that acts with justice and mercy if not the peace seekers? Only the saints with their pure hearts can grant God’s peace. The world cannot give such real peace. Therefore, for Thomas Aquinas there are three reasons why the peaceful and peacemakers are called children of God. The first is ‘because they have the office of the Son of God’ who came into the world to gather the dispersed. The second is ‘because through peace with charity one reaches the eternal kingdom’ to which all the children of God are called, and it is already a real foretaste of it. Finally, the third is because through charity and grace the human being ‘becomes like unto God; for where peace is, there is no resistance’, as it would be the opposite of peace. As Pope Francis says, resisting the divine sun, hiding from its light and love, shutting off the horizon of transcendence, is the opposite of peace. In general, modern man has no peace because he has shut off the horizon of eternity.

It is remarkable to see how these beatitudes belong to one another and surpass one another: the more one is merciful, the more one is just and vice versa; the more one is a peacemaker, the more one is a child of God and vice versa. There is a gradual circularity among them: one leads to another, and they mutually perfect themselves.

The Lord then proposes the eighth beatitude, which signifies the perfection of all the previous ones. The human being is perfect when he does not give up trying to practice the Beatitudes even in the event of persecution: ‘As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in his conversation is the test of a man’ (Si 27: 5). The beatitude says: ‘Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. But one may wonder whether this contradicts the message ‘Blessed are the peaceful’, because persecution clearly perturbs the state of peace or precludes it entirely. We answer that persecution is the cause of the removal of external peace, but not of the internal peace possessed by the peaceful. In this case, persecution itself is not the essence of happiness, but an external occasion allowing it. What makes us happy in Jesus Christ is the practical exercise of justice. This beatitude is matched by what St Peter writes: ‘But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you’ (1 Pt 3: 14). It is worth noting that he does not explain whether it is because of atheists, lay people or non-believers, nor does he mention the reason for faith like the classic martyrs did, but he only indicates as a reason for persecution the practice of justice, which is the social virtue par excellence.

The final Beatitude, the ninth, says, ‘Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake’, which strengthens the meaning of the previous one. These two last Beatitudes summarise, of course, the programme of Pope Francis. In this he is revolutionary compared to the Popes of the last few centuries, but not compared to the previous Popes: one for all is Gregory the Great, who lived in the Benedictine Monastery on the Caelian hill (one of Rome’s seven hills) where he used to invite the poor to eat at his table every day, while his sister, belonging to one of Rome’s most noble families, served them.

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And this leads us to Matthew 25: 31 ff, which is good to remember and write down, because it is the action plan that the Lord will judge us by, in the light of the Beatitudes: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me”. The righteous will answer him: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”. And the King will reply: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”. Then he will tell the people on his left: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me”. They, in turn, will ask him: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” And he will answer: “I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me’. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’. We know that Pope Francis rightly insists in warning us that this is the action plan that we shall be judged by. I will be brief for reasons of time.

First of all, the King, Jesus Christ, who is well represented in Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, says ‘blessed by my Father’, because God is the source and mother from whom we receive all the graces and gifts that we have, be they natural or free. There are two causes of our happiness or beatitude: one, on behalf of God the Father, which is his blessing; the other, on our behalf, which is merit based on our freedom to accept God's blessing. We should not be sluggish, but cooperate with God’s gift, ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective’ (1 Cor 15: 10). Every Christian, therefore, is well aware that he should do everything in his power, but that the final result depends on God and his blessing: this conviction must support him in the daily practice of the Beatitudes, especially in difficult situations and in the persecution which derives from performing them. In this regard, St Ignatius of Loyola teaches us in modernity the best rule to act by placing everything in God as first cause, and everything in human freedom, sustained by grace, as secondary cause: ‘Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you’.[13]

One may wonder why, there being so many possible meritorious actions, the Lord proposes here acts of mercy towards our neighbours as the action plan and criterion for salvation. Some have interpreted this by suggesting that just by performing acts of mercy, one is saved, even if he commits many sins, which is a bit like saying: ‘be a sinner and strong in your sins, but be stronger in your faith and rejoice in Christ’ (Esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo). However, thanks to Paul, we know that this is not true: ‘all who practice such things deserve death’ (Rm 1: 32), and in Galatians, after listing carnal sins, he says ‘those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5: 21). Thus this interpretation is illusory. Of course, it may be that if one abstains from sin and does penance, one is released from sin and is saved through almsgiving. For almsgiving should start from ourselves and from the bottom of our hearts. Pope Francis always insists on the advice he used to give as a confessor: when you give alms look fondly in the face of the person you are helping. And what if you are an atheist, as in the case of Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the successful Italian newspaper La Repubblica? We know that Pope Francis, inspired by St Thomas, replied to him with a letter telling him to follow his conscience, the first postulate of which is: do good and avoid evil.

But why does Jesus Christ refer to these acts more than others? According to St Gregory, it is because these, which he interpreted as minimal, presume the others: if one does not do the primary things required by natural love, one almost certainly will not do the greater ones. St Augustine claims that we all sin in this world, but not all of us condemn ourselves. He who does penance and performs acts of mercy, is saved. As we shall see, Pope Francis intends acts of mercy to include all good acts. So, when we fulfil a beatitude we perform our duty of charity towards our neighbour. Therefore, when we do good to others, first and foremost we benefit ourselves. And let us not just consider bodily alms but spiritual ones too. Everything that human beings do for their neighbours, results in good for themselves, and everything one needs to do is contained in the acts of mercy.

So why do the righteous reply with wonder: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ First of all, they admire the Lord’s judgement out of sincere humility, but not just for this reason.

The Lord’s reply underscores the new evangelical focus that revolutionises the previous categories: ‘I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’. Why? First of all, because we are all brothers: we are a body whose head is Jesus Christ and we are the limbs either in act or in potency.

But are all human beings children of God? Yes, they all are, the good and the evil, at the very least because they participate in the common human nature that makes us brothers, but also through participation in the grace of Christ, that makes us ‘fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God’ (Eph 2: 19). But are we called to do good to everyone? Yes, to everyone, because Christ is ‘the firstborn among many brothers’. And we owe them all mercy and service. The Apostle says, ‘while we have the opportunity, let us do good to all’ (Gal 6: 10). Basically, we are all called to participate in the grace of Jesus Christ, either actually or potentially.

Why does he specify these least brothers? Because they are the neediest members, underprivileged and deprived of the body of Christ. They are the open sores of his flesh. By acting mercifully towards ‘these least brothers’ of ours, we do so towards Jesus Christ who suffers until the end of time in them. As Pope Francis said during the recent canonization of Mexican St. Guadalupe García Zavala, ‘this is called ‘touching the flesh of Christ’. The poor, the abandoned, the sick and the marginalized are the flesh of Christ. And Mother Lupita touched the flesh of Christ and taught us this behaviour: not to feel ashamed, not to fear, not to find ‘touching Christ’s flesh’ repugnant. Mother Lupita had realized what ‘touching Christ’s flesh’ actually means’.[14] This is the novelty of Francis, who always lived as a Christian when he was a priest and a bishop, and wants to continue along this same path now that he is the Pope.

* * *

One can extract two corollaries from these two texts, Matthew 5 (the Beatitudes) and Matthew 25 (the protocol of the Judgement). First of all one could say that from a philosophical point of view Pope Francis, as regards the great subject of evangelisation, being able to start from truth or human good – which is justice – prefers to follow the Beatitudes which speak about the poor, the afflicted, the righteous and the peacemakers. In other words, if we reduce the subject of the beginning to transcendentals and their mutual membership and conversion, ‘quodlibet ens est unum, verum, bonum’ (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, § 12), without neglecting the transcendental of truth which is very much emphasised in Pope St. John Paul II and in Pope Benedict XVI, perhaps Pope Francis begins with that of good which today is that of justice and the Beatitudes, like Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. We can say with St. Thomas ‘the object of the intellect is the first and the most important in the genus of formal causes: indeed, its object is being and truth. But the object of the will is the first and the most important in the genus of final causes: indeed its object is good, within which are included all ends’ (De Malo, q. 6, a. un., cor.). We can conclude that attraction to good, to happiness and to perfection has priority as regards all the attitudes of the conscience. Therefore to begin with human good, which is justice, not only seems suited to human anthropology but also demonstrates how intense is the social destination of the Gospel.

The second corollary is that in essential terms the Beatitudes and the last are more concrete existentially than the golden rule. This last, both in its positive and in its negative meaning, quoted in the Gospel, ‘do not do to others’, or ‘do to others’, is always maintained in the abstract view of the other or of oneself as another (Ricœur). The Beatitudes, on the other hand, which speak about the other in his existential situation of suffering – the poor, the weeping, the suffering, the pure in heart, the merciful, he who looks for justice and suffers for justice – in definitive terms, the last, demonstrate a human and social concretion of suffering that is not present in the golden rule. Today, therefore, we are called, following Pope Francis, to see how these recommendations of the Lord can be thought about and structured in the social order. Blessed are those who know how to think of and organise a global society where the last are the first! Thank you.


[1] Apostolic Journey to Rio de Janeiro on the Occasion of the XXVIII World Youth Day, Meeting with Young People from Argentina, Address of Holy Father Francis, Thursday, 25 July 2013, San Sebastián Cathedral, Pope Francis then repeated these concepts in his conversation with the founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, published on 1 October 2013:

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity (Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong eds.) in Kierkegaard’s Writings, XX, xii, 213, p. 233, Princeton University Press, 1991.

[3] St Thomas Aquinas, Super Matthaeum, chap. 5, lect 2. St Thomas also quotes St Augustine: “Whoever will take the trouble to examine with a pious and sober spirit, will find in this sermon a perfect code of the Christian life as far as relates to the conduct of daily life. Accordingly the Lord concludes it with the words, ‘Every man who heareth these words of mine and doeth them, I will liken him to a wise man’” (St Augustine, in St Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (Golden Chain)).

[4] Loc. cit.

[5] Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, Poderoso Caballero es Don Dinero, satirical poem, 1632. For St Thomas Aquinas, the “immoderate desire for having anything whatever” is termed covetousness (S. Th., II-II, 118, 2), which he also defines as “an immoderate desire for money” (In I Tim., 6, 10, Turin 1953, p. 259, n° 251). This leads to profit making as an end in itself, which is the immoderate greed for gain “which knows no limit and tends to infinity (quae terminum nescit sed in infinitum tendit)” (S. Th., II-II, 77, 4).

[6] According to the recent UNODC 2012 Report on Trafficking, the International Labour Organization estimates that since 2003 “20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally. This estimate also includes victims of human trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation”, p. 1.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei lectura (Commentary on Saint Matthew’s Gospel), Chap. 1-12, transl. by R.F. Larcher, O.P.

[8] St Thomas Aquinas convincingly explains that the disordered desire for the goods of this world derives from the deprived human condition: “avarice is said to be incurable because of the condition of the subject, since human life is continuously exposed to privation. Any form of shortage provokes avarice. Because the reason to seek temporal goods is to subsidize the indigence of present life” (De Malo, 13, 2 ad 8).

[9] “Hence by altogether contemning all riches (omnes divitias contempsit), Christ showed the highest kind of liberality and magnificence; although He also performed the act of liberality, as far as it became Him, by causing to be distributed to the poor what was given to Himself. Hence, when our Lord said to Judas (John 13:27), ‘That which thou dost do quickly’, the disciples understood our Lord to have ordered him to give something to the poor (v. 29)” (St Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., III, 7, 2, ad 3).

[10] Mass For The Episcopal Ordination of Five New Bishops, Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Vatican Basilica, Saturday, 12 September 2009

[11] Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005. 

[12] Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year 

[13] Cf. Pedro de Ribadeneira, Vida de San Ignacio de Loyola.

[14] Homily of Pope Francis, 12 May 2013, 


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