This month we saw a Democratic President of the United States seek an audience with the Pope, likely with the hopes he could regain his tarnished progressive image by having some of the Bishop of Rome’s credentials rub off on him. And if nothing else, this unusual state of affairs goes to show that the music of Prince, who, two decades ago sang “You can be the president, I’d rather be the Pope” is as relevant as ever.i
By last month Pope Francis, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was a year in to his tenure as leader of the oldest and largest religious organisation on the planet. Bergoglio, formerly the archbishop of Buenos Aires, had taken charge of a church whose members believe him to be the final authority on all holy matters. And judging by recent media reaction it seems that some in the secular world are beginning to think the same.
We’re used to people like the Dalai Lama, who represent a more personal and less invasive form of religion, being accorded praise from within and without their congregations. In recent years especially however the Catholic establishment has been almost exclusively defined by its approach to matters of sexual morality (homosexuality, contraception, etc.) and its incompetent reaction to the child abuse scandal. Pope Benedict’s resignation, the first by a pontiff in over half a millennium, was of course spurred by the PR-storm the Vatican found itself in. And when Catholic laypeople were themselves leaving in droves, any talk of projecting a positive image to the wider world would have been laughable.
With their immense influence, popes have a unique ability to force change, and this is what’s crucial in an institution that needs radical quantities of it. And with the Catholic Church swimming in accusations of immoral and illegal activity, the worst possible kind to boot, Francis can be held to a demanding standard. The Pope’s ability to effect change is not limited to the Catholic sphere either– when you’re at the helm of a collective embodying 1 out of every 7 people alive, you’re responsible for much much more.
Elites and celebrities have always appeared to hold popes in high esteem, but even here there now seems to be a change in the wind. Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Vatican last week was her first abroad since 2011’s to Australia, and there could hardly be more contrast in the comfortableness of the lifestyles of these two heads of state. Obama had visited a week earlier and was personally given a copy of Francis’ exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). The Pope has described Evangelii Gaudium as a statement of his intentions for reform of the Vatican, and Obama said, “I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength.”
(Evaneglii Gaudium, §49. Hopefully his Holiness means ‘hurting’ as a noun rather than a verb.)
One of the central themes of Evangelii Gaudium, arguably as it was in the Gospels, is inequality and poverty. Such themes could give the Democrats, particularly the more left-of-centre economic populists, the resolve they need in the upcoming battle with the deeply entrenched plutocratic political class. It is this ability to inspire Davids rather than Goliaths that characterises the ‘Francis factor’.
As a recent theological conference at Jesuit-run Georgetown University notes, there are fairly few doctrinal differences pre and post-Francis, but it is the change in focus that counts.ii Rather than pick on the already embattled women and the sexually-oriented minorities, Francis has chosen largely to fight against those who create rather than experience suffering and oppression. By saying “who am I to judge” when asked about homosexuals who want to practice Catholicism, asking the world at Lampedusa to remember “how to cry” for refugees, kissing the feet of female Muslim prisoners, or assuring atheists their good deeds may earn them a place in heaven, Francis truly sets wonderful precedents that the liberals in the church can at last look forward to building on.
Francis’ ability to also pinpoint institutional rather than isolated injustices, like the dog-eat-dog Social Darwinism of unfettered capitalism, has earned him the scorn of neo-liberalism’s most vociferous defenders. Rush Limbaugh described the Pope as a “Marxist”, and his criticism isn’t entirely misplaced, as one of the Catholic Church’s greatest traditions is the critique of the exploitation and social fragmentation associated with capitalism. The Pope unapologetically described the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh, and the economies complicit in it, as representing “slave labour”. On a separate occasion Francis described capitalism as idolatry and a tyranny.
Francis’ simple attire, like his namesake Francis of Assisi, is itself a direct challenge to the vanity of our consumerist times. On top of this, the Pope drives a Ford Focus, often cooks his own meals, and immediately chose to avoid living in the luxurious Papal palace. Francis has also taken more combative action as well, by firing Germany’s Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the “Bling Bishop”. He is reminding us of the distaste for ostentatious wealth that a life in the developing world can instill.
Francis is far from perfect, he has only just named the people who will sit on the child sex abuse commission and has yet to come even close to supporting women’s ordination. And while the Pope is making advances like reforming its bank, the Vatican still sits on hoarded wealth. Not forgetting that Bergoglio entered the Papacy accused of not doing enough to fight Argentina’s fascist regime during the dark days.
Ultimately, Francis doesn’t have to reach perfection if he is simply capable of being a force for more good than evil in world, or if one can say he is a huge improvement on his predecessor. To one of these things observers can almost certainly say yes, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say both.
When the Pope blesses a statue of a ‘homeless Jesus’ near St. Peter’s Square, falls to his knees in public and confesses his sins to an ordinary priest, the theologian George Mannion at Georgetown’s conference describes Evangelii Gaudium as “ecclesiological dynamite”, or Fortune magazine names Francis top in a list of greatest world leaders, clearly something is up. Mannion continues to say, “there is no sugar-coating” it: the exhortation has “little substantive continuity with the ecclesial agenda” of Francis’ predecessors.
If what Mannion says appears to portray radicalism, add to this the Pope’s words that a true church should be both for the poor and poor itself, or the Vatican’s creation of a council of eight advising cardinals, the ‘C8’, which Francis has assembled with whom to share power. Professor Alberto Melloni, an ecclesiastical historian, has described the decentralisation of power embodied by the C8 secretariat as the “most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries”. If in just a year this 266th, but 9th youngest Pope can transform a thousand years of tradition, imagine what else he may leave behind.
i It’s a good thing Prince doesn’t allow his music on YouTube or you’d see that he followed this up by singing “You can be the side effect, I’d rather be the dope” which isn’t half as useful for the present discussion…
ii For example, Benedict XVI in his 2008 encyclical Caritas in Veritate developed Catholic social theory while defending human rights, democracy, and the welfare state against the political Right. Here and elsewhere Benedict also garnered the nickname ‘the Green Pope’ from speaking extensively on climate change, some highlights of which can be found in Peter’s later article here.