Unexpectedly, Pope Francis has emerged as one of the most significant world leaders. Largely unknown before his election, Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis has assumed the moral stature of a new Mandela, and not just among Catholics.
Four and a half years after his election, Francis shows no signs of slowing down or of incapacity, despite his 80 years. He has been driving deep changes in the Church, and has been stringent in his critiques of clericalism and careerism. He has renewed the momentum from the Second Vatican Council, and is pushing major changes in structures and culture, calling for increased transparency, lay consultation, and participation in the Church, especially for women. He wants the Church more strongly involved than ever in the struggles of poor and marginalised people.
Not surprisingly, Francis has upset many apple carts, and is meeting resistance from some Catholics. As he says, it is not the end of an era, but a change of era in a vastly changed global context, in which faith must find fresh expression.
On the international stage
Francis is also a key figure on the secular international stage, and he contributes to the discourse about current problems, from issues of war, violence, and terrorism, to economic and social affairs dealing with inequality, hunger, poverty, migration, and refugees. How is the Pope managing such a brief, given the astonishing range of issues and the urgency of many of them?
As a moral leader, the energetic Francis has sharpened the relevance of his role, certainly in the urgent encounter with Islam, but also in the overarching global issues of climate change and world poverty.
At World Youth Day events in Sydney in 2008, Pope Benedict surprisingly made practically no mention of the great social justice issues, even though he was preparing his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009) in response to the Global Financial Crisis. Francis, however, has deliberately brought social justice to the centre of the Church’s mission today.
World leaders and heads of government have been queuing to meet Francis, even US President Donald Trump. Francis gave Trump copies of his major documents, and stressed that he signed one on climate change personally for him. Alas, soon after that, Trump announced that the USA would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Sad.
Particularly in Laudato Sí in 2015, Francis warned not only about the ‘catastrophic’ threat from global warming, but sharply criticised economic policies exacerbating inequality and failing adequately to alleviate global poverty.
Critics of Pope Francis
Some have strongly criticised Pope Francis’s views on social justice and inequality. In the Australian newspaper, commentators in June 2015 argued that the Pope’s views were not Church teaching but his own private opinions, and that Catholics need not take them seriously. Others declared that these questions should be left to scientists, and that Francis had no authority to speak on such matters.
The editor-at-large of the Australian, Paul Kelly, wrote on 24 June that the Pope’s language was “vivid, almost hysterical. Profound intellectual ignorance is dressed up as honouring God”. He charged that the Pope and his advisers were “economic ideologues of a quasi-Marxist bent”. The Pope “delegitimises as ‘immoral’ the position of pro-market reformers”.
However, Francis insists that his documents rely on the best scientific advice available, and are meant to be taken seriously as authoritative Church statements. Catholics are free to debate them, since criticism can help make any corrections. Nevertheless, he points out that his critique of unfair economic programs has a long pedigree over 125 years in Church social teaching, back to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.
Despite opposition from the networks of right-wing media and think tanks aligned with and funded by major corporations, Francis has reiterated many times his attack on extreme free-market ideologies, and in part blames them for growing inequality. He acknowledges the huge benefits of well-regulated markets in lifting millions out of poverty, but laments that markets have often been perverted and corrupted by special interests, diverting the gains to small elites, rather than benefitting the many.
The social views of Pope Francis have resonated profoundly with many others. There has been rising outrage in many countries against neoliberal policies fanning extravagance and greed among elites, while austerity policies have caused widespread unemployment and severe hardship. The resentment has been sweeping through Europe and even the United States, helping explain the election of President Trump and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
The thinkers behind Francis
Francis has had teams of people consulting world experts, including many non-Catholics, such as the leading economist and critic of inequality Joseph Stiglitz, one of the architects of the UN Millennium Development Goals Jeffrey Sachs, and on global warming a world authority in this field the Director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber who helped launch Laudato Sí in Rome. He insisted that the climate science behind the document was very sound.
Many eminent scholars are members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. These bodies, which include numerous Nobel Prize laureates, have been researching such issues for years, and advise Church agencies, including the Pontifical Council Justice & Peace under Cardinal Peter Turkson.
It is too early to tell how well Pope Francis will succeed in his agenda to encourage all people, whatever their beliefs, to work together in practical efforts to improve human life for everyone, with special regard for those on the margins and for the sustainability of the planet itself, as detailed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals for instance.
It is rumoured that Francis is preparing a new social encyclical. If so, one might expect him to continue his critique of neoliberal economic policies, but also to examine the causes of conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the arms trade which continues to stoke these fires. Francis has said there is a war going on around the world, waged piecemeal.