Should Pope Francis really stick to religion?

Pope Francis waves as he celebrates Mass in Asuncion, Paraguay, on Sunday.
Pope Francis waves as he celebrates Mass in Asuncion, Paraguay, on Sunday. AP VIA L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO/POOL PHOTO

“A new command I give you: love one another.” – John 13:34

So said Jesus 2,000 years ago in his Last Supper with his disciples. Shortly afterward he was captured, tortured and executed. The Bible says that three days later, he rose from death. The faith founded upon that resurrection claims, according to the Pew Research Center, upwards of two billion worldwide.

Ponder that. On a planet of seven billion, roughly one out of every three of us is governed by that simple command. Or so it is in theory. The reality, of course, is another matter.

If that command were taken seriously by two billion people – or any significant portion thereof – can you imagine what that might look like? Would women still struggle to get by on less than $3 a day in Freetown? Would the streets of Miami still be home to the mentally ill? Would a child in Baltimore still be sitting in class, hungry? Would corporations still be people?

Last week, Pope Francis went to South America. And, as has become routine for this pope, he upset some people. In addresses to the faithful, he offered a critique of the excesses of capitalism. While conceding the need for economic growth, the pontiff excoriated a model that concentrates wealth at the top and leaves the poor to scramble for the remains.

“Dung of the devil,” he called it. “A new colonialism.” “A subtle dictatorship.”

“As Christians,” he told an audience in Paraguay, “we have an additional reason to love and serve the poor; for in them we see the face and the flesh of Christ, who made himself poor so as to enrich us with his poverty.”

This was not well-received in some quarters, particularly in the United States where unfettered capitalism is regarded by some as a kind of secular religion. Patrick Buchanan spoke for many when he wrote in a column, “Pope Francis is the infallible custodian of (the) truths Christ taught. Is that not sufficient, Your Holiness? Why not leave the socialist sermons to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?” It is telling that Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum made a similar argument in criticizing a papal letter on the environment.

The pope, they say, should stick to religion – to “making us better people,” as Bush put it – and leave the state of the world to others. But if you understand the “new command” Jesus left his followers, then you know this is a distinction without a difference: faith requires concern for the state of the world.

It’s fascinating. Jesus said absolutely nothing about same-sex marriage. But if the pontiff had issued a blast against the practice, it is the safest of bets that Buchanan, Bush and Santorum would not dare lecture him to stay in his lane.

By contrast, Jesus spoke repeatedly and eloquently about the obligation to care for those in need – “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” he says in the book of Matthew, “you did for me.” Yet the pope has somehow crossed a line when he speaks about the victimization of the vulnerable?

That’s the nonsensical judgment of those for whom “faith” evidently imposes no burden, demands no change, requires only a vague effort to become a better person. Yet you will find no such complacency in Jesus’ “new command.”

“Love one another,” he said. And love is not talk. Love is compassion in action. It is intolerance of suffering. And it is something two billion of us are told to give. Candidly, most of us don’t seem to take the command seriously. But this pope inspires you to wonder:

What would the world be like if we did?

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.