Pope Francis and New York's Social Sin

by Brendan D. Moore

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

While nearly 100,000 New Yorkers gather in Central Park this Friday to see Pope Francis en route to Mass at Madison Square Garden, many Columbia students won't know or care about his itinerary.

But given Francis’ dedication to serving the poor, it’s not surprising to learn he will venture to East Harlem and visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School, where he will observe inner-city conditions and meet with immigrant families served by Catholic charities.

In 2007, while serving as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Francis once remarked, “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least.” He was referring to how most of Argentina’s economic gains have only helped a small, privileged few, such as those who live in gated communities boasting tennis courts, polo fields, and verdant 18-hole golf courses on the outskirts of Buenos Aires . The future bishop of Rome continued, “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven.”

Although Buenos Aires is certainly far away from Columbia, our city is home to the “social sin” of inequality, too. Of course, the plight of the poor in Harlem isn’t identical that of the poor in Argentina—to equate the two would be fallacious. However, short of disease and violence, nothing ails the human condition more than struggling for mere subsistence: Today, 38 percent of citizens of East Harlem live in poverty. Like the children of Buenos Aires, young Harlem residents don’t have to travel far to see the economic gains that have been given to so few: Park Avenue, the Manhattan street emblematic of wealth, is a mere three blocks west and a mile south of Our Lady Queen of Angels. And on Columbia’s campus, food insecurity has beleaguered lower-income students, whose finances would be too greatly strained if they purchased the highest meal plan. These students live in dorms only yards away from Low Library, where a 24-person board of trustees manages Columbia’s $9.2 billion endowment.

It is such excess wealth and “idolatry of money” that Francis has railed against. As Columbia students, it can be easy to forget that such injustice lies in our own city and in our own university. After all, Columbia can feel quite insular: Most of us can’t see the luxury apartments being erected on Park Avenue while standing on South Lawn. Likewise, we may fail to see the physical and emotional struggles of our fellow students when there’s a paper to write or test to study for instead.

But just because we, as students, may not contemplate this reality doesn’t mean the pope won’t. There’s no doubt Pope Francis will recognize New York’s social sin, predicated on an “economy of exclusion”—another observation of his. During this New York trip, he will address the U.N. General Assembly. During his last meeting with U.N. leaders, he called for “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits” by the government with full cooperation from the private sector. On a micro-scale, the Columbia community has addressed this issue with CU Meal Share, which allows for voluntary redistribution of excess meal swipes from students who don’t need them to students who do.

Now, rest assured—Francis isn’t changing the Roman Catholic Church doctrine. He isn’t even the first pope to make statements like these (in 1891, Pope Leo XIII said that once “necessity and propriety” have been met, everything one owns belongs to the poor). Moreover, he doesn’t condemn inequality and advocate for the poor because he’s well-versed on the economic literature of the likes of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, or Joseph Stiglitz. Rather, Pope Francis views economic inequality as a moral issue.

This view is squarely aligned with the pope’s duty to lead the church in spreading the gospel of Jesus through mercy, encounter, and love for those on the fringe. The pontiff’s strategy, which has garnered him much attention, is actually a quite simple one: First, he wants to shift the attention of the Roman Catholic Church to ordinary people. Second, he loves to encounter and interact with others, whether it’s by something as simple as taking a selfie or embracing a disfigured man. Third, Francis emphasizes mercy and the church’s teaching that all humans—regardless of faith—are sinners. Without first hearing compassion and forgiveness, we won’t hear God’s teachings either. Fourth, he locates himself on the fringe: He serves the poor, the outcasts. Hence the peripheral Our Lady Queen of Angels, whose church actually closed seven years ago. The fact that there are no longer enough Catholics present to support the local church doesn’t matter to Francis. These tenets, which encompass issues of wealth and income equality, have been the linchpins of Pope Francis’ papacy.

To be clear, I am not equating the plight of the poor in Buenos Aires to those in Harlem, nor to those here at Columbia. Differing degrees of poverty and hardship do exist—but people suffer nonetheless. Thankfully, the pope reminds us that the solutions to these problems, despite their differences in setting, are fundamentally the same: We must act as our brother’s keeper, whether by donating a meal swipe, offering our extra food to a homeless man on our way to class, or supporting effective anti-poverty programs.

We Columbians—especially those of us who have been blessed with financial security—must continue our commitment to ameliorate this social sin. Whether we are ecstatic Pope Francis is visiting New York or just annoyed by the excess traffic, we can all pull from his message of social justice on our campus, in our city, and around the globe.