The meaning of mercy

A Q&A in the Mission Church with Cardinal Rodríguez, one of the most influential leaders of the Catholic Church today.

A Q&A in the Mission Church with Cardinal Rodríguez, one of the most influential leaders of the Catholic Church today. Photos by Charles Barry

SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics hosted Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga for a daylong visit on Jan. 20. The archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and president of Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Rodríguez is also the coordinator of the unprecedented eight-member Council of Cardinals named by Pope Francis to provide counsel on Church governance. He has been a cardinal since 2001 and served as the Vatican’s spokesman with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on grappling with the debt of developing nations.

At Santa Clara, Cardinal Rodríguez spoke with SCU students for an afternoon Q&A. A former music teacher and occasional saxophone player, he wrapped up by teaching the students a song he’d written.

Earlier in the day, in San Jose, the cardinal had visited Washington Elementary School, a partner of SCU’s Thriving Neighbors Initiative and the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, where he met and talked with a group of Latina immigrant mothers from the neighborhood working to support the school.

The day finished with Cardinal Rodríguez delivering the annual Regan Lecture, at the Mission Church. Watch video of his talk, “The Church of Mercy with Pope Francis,” and read the essay on which it’s based.

Following the lecture, Cardinal Rodríguez sat down to field questions from the audience. Moderating were David DeCosse, director of campus ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and Luis F. Calero, S.J., an associate professor of anthropology and a senior fellow at the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education. Here are edited excerpts.


Luis Calero: As you know, immigration is a controversial topic in the United States and in other countries. Some people in this country feel that our policies are too lenient toward immigration, and some feel differently, that we need to be more merciful toward immigrants. Now, we’ve had quite a number of people from Honduras coming to this country recently—and not only Honduras but other countries in Central America. In the light of this notion of the church of mercy, what should be our understanding of migrant children and of undocumented migrants, and what kind of reflection does Pope Francis bring to this?

Cardinal Rodríguez: Well, migration is a big problem in the world. Migration is a right of a person. Every person has the right to move freely in the world. But when migration is caused by wars or by religious persecutions, we need to have a very different approach. It’s also a work of mercy that is in the Christian faith—actually, in the final exam that every one of us should pass. In Matthew 25, we see that the way we treat our neighbor is the only subject that we are going to be judged about.

In today’s world, a migrant is not looked at as a neighbor who has to be taken in. The person is seen as a threat in many aspects. I know it’s not an easy subject to deal with. When we in Caritas Internationalis have visited the camps of refugees in Lebanon, for instance, or in Jordan, where we have more than 1 million from Syria, more than 1 million from Iraq, this is a tragedy. We see that in Turkey, also, many of the Iraqis who are trying to enter find a lot of difficulties.

When there are countries that certainly close every door to the migration, when we see migration from the north part of Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, when the pope said to the European Parliament, “Let’s not make the Mediterranean a cemetery”—it’s really a big problem. Of course, here you feel it more dramatically, from migrants from Central America especially.

It’s because of poverty—young people do not find sources of work to help their own families. I can tell you that the first income in my country, Honduras, is not the exports of coffee or other agricultural products. No, it’s the family remittances that go from here to our country. This means that the poor are supporting the poor.

I know that every country has the right to establish its own laws, but between the limits of the laws nowadays it’s necessary to help especially those who suffer most because of poverty. The solution is not more police or negative politics against them; the solution is to try to help and promote development in their countries of origin. Without development, nobody could ever stop migration.

The problem is complicated, I understand, and we work a lot with young people to discourage them from leaving their families or their country of origin. But what can we offer them? Of course, we press and we dialogue with the governments so that they can prevent migration. But because it’s not only a matter of numbers, we are losing our young generation—the young who can work and who would like to work.

There is another ingredient that should be prosecuted, and we are very strongly against them: coyotes, those who are paid in order to bring persons through the desert, and then many times abandon them. The least they are charging is $5,000 a person. Can you imagine the poorest selling what they have or contracting loans in order to pay a trafficker? Because this is human trafficking. It’s being paid in order to  move [people] from one country to another, and many times abandoning them in Mexico or kidnapping them. Then the kidnappers call the families to [extort] more money from them. It’s really a tragedy.

This is a complicated problem that should be faced not only in a political aspect. Of course, I can understand that, approaching elections, this is an issue that many times politicians use for their own purposes. It should be faced in a humanitarian aspect and not only in political aspects—whether a party will gain or lose votes. Let’s hope that, together, there can be found some solutions. Some countries are receiving labor with contracts—precise contracts and visas for work, et cetera. This could be a partial solution. But mainly it’s necessary to promote development in the countries of origin. This will stop illegal migration.


David DeCosse: You mentioned the economy and poverty. We have a number of questions from people about how to cultivate a culture of mercy in the face of what you have said this evening and at other times, and what Pope Francis has said: that so much of the global economy today is an economy that kills and is driven by idolatry. I wonder if you could comment more on those views, which have generated strong opposition in the United States among some.

Cardinal Rodríguez: If an economic system is producing an increasing inequality, it is necessary to question why. When you see that, for instance, in one developed country of Europe there are 8 million poor, something is not working, and it’s necessary to question that.

So when the pope says in Evangelii gaudium, “This economy kills,” it is not enough to say, “Oh, he comes from the Third World. He comes from Argentina. He doesn’t know the United States, for instance.” It is necessary to go objectively to the situation and to the results. And of course this kind of marginalization and leaving the poor to their own destiny kills. If a system is killing, it’s necessary to correct it.

This is why I believe the pope is promoting—sometimes provoking, as he said in Lampedusa, Italy—not globalizing indifference, because this is one of the illnesses of today: indifference. “OK, there are people dying in Iran, yes, for four years now in a war. Who cares? It’s their problem.” Globalization of indifference. We should be concerned—all the baptized—concerned by any war in the world. We cannot be indifferent.

For eight years I was participating with the people of the IMF, of the World Bank, of the Inter-American Development Bank in a dialogue, trying to alleviate the external debt of the poorest countries. At the beginning they said, “You, priest, have nothing to say to us, the world of economy.” After that, finally in Gleneagles, the achievement came, and the external debt of the 26 poorest countries was canceled. Dialogue is the way to go, and it’s necessary to dialogue in order to correct the defects or illnesses of the economic situation of the world.


Luis Calero: There is a question here about the Church in the United States, which faces many problems regarding leadership, accountability, and trust. One of the important issues here—and perhaps in other countries—is the role of women in church life and church leadership. There’s widespread concern. The question is: Will you help us understand how Pope Francis’ vision addresses the role of women not only in the United States but in the Catholic Church at large?

Cardinal Rodríguez: Yes, of course. He is very much concerned about this, and he wants to go forward. When you read Evangelii gaudium, you see his vision of the participation of women, for instance, now in the reformation of the Curia. There is a possibility, and I believe we will succeed, to open it more to the participation even in the dicasteries of the Roman Curia.

As you know, there is a woman who is undersecretary on the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace. There is a religious sister in the Congregation for Religious. But we are promoting, and I think we will succeed, to have a woman or a married couple as responsible for family in a new dicastery. Why not? They are the ones who know family better, and there could be other places [for women]. The pope has the idea of trying to implement the participation of women.


David DeCosse: You spoke earlier today of a very important meeting in Rome in February, at which the reform of the Curia will be a very important topic on the agenda. I was wondering if you could tell us more about that.

Cardinal Rodríguez: First of all, we need a lot of prayers, because the work of the commission has been big. People wanted immediate results. But the reformation started in October 2013 at our first meeting, when the decision was taken that the first issue was economy inside the state of the Vatican. Why? Because there were a lot of problems regarding what was called the Vatican Bank, which is not a bank in itself. It’s a foundation that was started by Pius XII in order to protect the goods of the religious congregations. At that time there was a danger that Hitler would take the Vatican and sack everything. So Pius XII started this kind of foundation that, during the time, was working like a bank.

Of course, there were abuses, and many. So it was necessary to take measures, and the pope did it immediately when he started a commission that led in February last year to the creation of a secretary of finances in the Vatican, and then a central bank. The reformation started in that way.

Then came the dicasteries. This is a name for the ministries of the government—minister of education, minister of health, et cetera. But during the pre-conclave meetings, there was a big unrest in saying, “We cannot go on like this.” The dicasteries were never in a meeting together. Maybe there was a single meeting once a year. Can you imagine a government that has only a once-a-year meeting of the ministers? It doesn’t work.

This is why there was this movement of reducing the number of dicasteries in order that they could more easily come together and take decisions together. We are going in that direction. But of course there is opposition—when you are in the council, for instance, for health in the Church, they told you that you are no longer going to be in that council because the council will be a secretariat in a bigger dicastery.

In February, the Holy Father wants us to present the guidelines of the reformation to all the cardinals, those who are retired and those who are in service. And so there will be a little earthquake. Try to accompany us in prayer.


Luis Calero: Cardinal, there are a few questions about why Pope Francis is the way he is. [Audience laughter] People speculate about his background. Some people argue that he is from a Third World country, so he’s different; that he is the child of immigrants in Argentina; that he is a Jesuit, and he is pragmatic; and that he has been connected to ministry among the poor, and so that all these things have changed his life and his vision. Now, you work very closely with him, and the question is: In your opinion, what are the most important points in his background that make him who he is?

Cardinal Rodríguez: He is as he is because God made him like that. [Laughter] But of course his education, his pastoral attitudes, come from a pastor of the Third World. This is true. There are pastors of the First World who never saw poverty, never. It’s different. And so everyone has his own approach.

For instance, Pope Benedict knew the world from his perspective of a theologian. He was Archbishop of Munich for only two years. Then he was a teacher all his life. This marks a person. That is why his pontificate is a pontificate of beautiful teachings, beautiful encyclicals, and doctrinal matters. But he never was in contact with extreme poverty, never.

Pope Francis was going to the poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. He knew poverty from the bottom, and that is why this marks his approach. When he is denouncing, he is not a revolutionary. But when he is talking about the option for the poor, he talks of his own experience. And of course each one of us is creator of his own formation. He was formed in the company of Jesus, and of course he has a strong formation, a very good formation, and he is very practical because he was provincial. And then he was auxiliary bishop, and then he was archbishop. All this marked his pastoral attitude.

But, especially, his spirituality is very concrete. He is a contemplative in action, and of course he is a man of deep prayer. I can witness that. Every day—every day—at least three hours of prayer, and nothing changes his schedule. He respects that, and that is the reason why he is like he is.

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