Column: Pope’s concern for the poor is encouraging

JEFF J MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES PHOTO  |  Newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
JEFF J MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES PHOTO | Newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Progressive Catholics are reportedly less than enthusiastic about the election to the papacy of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He is, after all, a 76-year-old conservative theologian who has spoken out forcefully and consistently against same-sex marriage, women in the priesthood, abortion and contraception

But if these stands place him out of touch with the modern world, as some suggest, there is another out-of-touch aspect to Pope Francis that we all might welcome: his abiding concern for the poor, a sensitivity that seems to have all but disappeared from public discussion, particularly in the United States.

In the last presidential campaign, even so-called liberals avoided speaking up for the poor. Neither party proposed policies to lift people out of poverty. Debates centered on helping the middle class. And whenever an alarm over income inequality was raised, the issue was dismissed as nothing more than class warfare, envy and an attempt to punish success.

Yet in America, poverty is on the increase and the gap between rich and poor is now wider than it’s ever been — wider, in fact, than in any other industrialized nation. Taking off on the notion that a rising economic tide lifts everybody’s boat, large or small, President Kennedy once quipped, “A rising tide lifts all yachts.” But what JFK only joked about is now the new normal. Those able to buy luxury yachts are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, with the top 1 percent of Americans now possessing 40 percent of the wealth in our country and the bottom 80 percent holding only 7 percent.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16 percent of our population, or roughly 49 million people, live below the poverty line. Even the proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.00 has been pronounced dead on arrival, even though such a modest increase would still fall short of the income needed to support a family.

Globally, the statistics are more unsettling. At least 80 percent of humanity lives on less than a dollar a day. The richest 20 percent of the world’s citizens account for three-quarters of global income. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 22,000 children die every day due to poverty and 28 percent of children in the developing world are estimated to be underweight or stunted.

Media outlets in recent days have reported much evidence of the new pope’s humility and humanity — for example, the austere life he lived as archbishop of Buenos Aires, renting a small apartment, cooking his own meals and taking a bus to work. But most compelling, perhaps, was his taking Francis as his name to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, son of an Italian count who devoted his life to the oppressed and downtrodden.

Last week in Rome was a beginning full of promise. At the very least, the new pope may succeed in influencing the public dialogue by bringing the poor out of the shadows — if not out of the slums.

John Stefans is a retired banker, Northville resident and former Riverhead News-Review editor.