Pope Francis has not resiled from the strong critiques in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, of unregulated and unjust economic systems, despite criticism of some of his economics. But he has fine-tuned his message, applauding business as ‘a noble vocation’ when it serves the common good. He acknowledged the benefits and social uplift made possible by modern economic systems, but highlighted unfairness and inequality in the way global economic and financial systems actually operate.
His central themes included concern about the environment and climate change, and ending social and economic exclusion of the weak and marginalised. He particularly mentioned the need for firm agreements at the Paris Conference on Climate Change in December.
His visit first to Cuba, and then especially to the United States, captured the attention of a global audience. Via cable TV, people around the world could view his speeches live, and see his gestures and symbols, such as his little Fiat car chugging along surrounded by his security detail. After major events, to demonstrate the priorities in the Gospel, he visited homeless people, immigrants, and prisoners.
When the cardinals elected Jorge Bergoglio in 2013, few could have expected him to emerge as perhaps the leading moral voice at this time. Rev Jim Wallis, a prominent evangelical Christian, wrote “Pope Francis is the greatest conversation changer in the world today”.
Francis very deliberately speaks not only to Catholics, or even just to Christians, but to everyone concerned about our future as human beings, as we face unprecedented problems arising from processes of globalisation, poverty, war, and environmental degradation. Many times, he spoke of the need to welcome refugees and immigrants.
In Philadelphia, he repeatedly urged followers of all religions to “join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity and rights of others”. Their rich religious traditions stimulate “concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need”.
He speaks simply, and uses symbols. Hence, most of his talks and addresses are readily understandable, even when he is speaking about complex issues. Nevertheless, his addresses to the US Congress on 24 September and to the UN General Assembly the next day demonstrated his personal grasp of global issues and his ability to talk insightfully with heads of government and policy specialists.
His speeches in English are slow and deliberate so as to be clear. He is, of course, far more fluent in Spanish than in English, as at the United Nations, where he spoke quickly in full command of his content. He is animated when speaking spontaneously, at times putting aside his written text, and talking from the heart. He has an astonishing gift of communication to which even his critics warm.
Dialogue to overcome polarisation
His message to the US bishops was courteous but unmistakable. He did not support the “harsh and divisive” approach of the so-called ‘culture wars’ (in which some of the bishops have been major participants, polarising the Church into pro-life and social justice wings). He did not mention abortion explicitly, instead talking about protecting human wellbeing through life, and calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
To the Congress, he recalled struggles to live up to the best US ideals, instancing the figures of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. These focused on issues of freedom, human rights, poverty, inequality, peace, and interreligious dialogue. With the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, struggling to hold himself together in the emotion of the moment while the Pope spoke, Francis gently nudged Congress members to rise above their ideological polarisation and work for positive outcomes for the common good. He emphasised dialogue, recognising the good in people of differing views, and working for realistic outcomes to enhance wellbeing, not just of humans, but of the planet and all its creatures.
The Pope attacked arms proliferation and the arms trade, and called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. He trenchantly denounced the arms trade which profits from “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”. The US happens to be the largest arms exporter.
In his address to the UN General Assembly, with the crowded hall listening intently, Francis called for a grave examination of conscience by world leaders, not only about religious or cultural persecution but also about conflicts such as those in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, and the Great Lakes region, where so many people “weep, suffer, and die”. He also warned of another kind of conflict “silently killing millions of people”, the drug wars, involving human trafficking, the arms trade, child exploitation, and corruption. “The appeal to the moral conscience of man has never been as necessary as it is today.”
He reiterated central concerns from his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, especially the environment issues, and endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate global hunger, the worst poverty, and numerous other aims among the 17 major Goals and 169 targets. After the Pope’s address, the 193 member nations voted to approve the SDGs and commit to advancing the Goals in a coordinated effort to lift living standards worldwide. Wealthy countries are to pledge much greater financial contributions than poor countries, as well as implementing Goals within their own countries, especially to do with equity and sustainability.
Francis resolutely supported the United Nations and its agencies as critical in securing peace between nations and coordinating issues of international governance. But he also urged reforms to ensure increased equity for all nations in decision-making, particularly on the Security Council and in international financial agencies. He insisted that developing countries must not be subject to usury, or “subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate poverty, exclusion, and dependence”.
Distribution of responsibility
He also called for the “effective distribution of power (political, economic, defence-related, technological, etc) among a plurality of subjects”, and for creating a juridical system to regulate claims. He linked environmental degradation and social exclusion, which denies “human fraternity and [is] a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most…” .
The Pope urged the UN to be “constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle, and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights”. He continued that to allow these people to escape extreme poverty, “we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny”. Their dignity and integral human development must be “allowed to unfold for each individual”, in their relationships and activities, especially with access to education, including for girls.
Francis reiterated his message in Laudato Si’ about our need to recover a sense of the gift of nature. He concluded that the common home of all men and women must rise on the foundation of respect “for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every women, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned… on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature”.
Many people were concerned that the Pope had not addressed the issue of sex abuse of minors. Not until Sunday 27 September did he meet privately with five abuse survivors. Moved by the meeting, Francis shortly afterwards slowly made some unscripted statements to a gathering of bishops in Philadelphia.
He lamented the abuse “profoundly. God weeps. The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept secret any longer. I commit myself to the zealous watchfulness of the church to protect minors, and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable.” These are powerful words many had been hoping to hear.
Overall, Pope Francis has given a striking example of how to speak cogently in the public forum, bringing the values of our religious traditions into conversation in the public forum about the very future of human and other life on our planet. In effect, he is offering a new narrative for our human story.