Pope Francis—the leader of a faith with about 1.2 billion adherents—has undoubtedly taken the Catholic Church in a decisively new direction. Catholicism, a bastion of conservatism and traditionalism, and the role of chief pontiff, which has been held by 265 other men, are not exactly among the most malleable institutions and positions in the world. Since he stepped up in 2013, Francis’ actions have been widely praised and criticized.
Francis is a pope of many firsts. He is the first pope from the Americas and the Global South, and the first from the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. Perhaps this explains his populist tendencies, extreme sense of humility, and emphatic willingness to forcefully speak up for the world’s poorest and forgotten. Regardless of how you view this native Argentinean, it is undeniable that he has brought the Vatican into the 21st century and made it more attuned to the realities around us.
At a time of increasing secularization, raging church-state debates, weaponizing of faith, and growing differences and hostilities among members of the world’s religions, Francis should be a welcomed voice on the global stage. Extremists have misappropriated the tenants and texts of their religious persuasions to advocate violence and provoke conflict. In turn, many Western leaders and pundits have condemned Islam—the second-largest religion in the world—as an ideology of hate. French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and Steve Bannon—top adviser to President Donald Trump—are among many power-brokers who espouse patently anti-Muslim beliefs. Divisive political debates around the role of church and state permeate political discourse in the United State and beyond.
Francis is an emerging voice of conscience on the international scene that desperately needs a morality check. “A society that excludes [is] not worthy of mankind,” he said last week, a statement coming on the heels of another big one that came just days before. In a homily discussing hypocrisy and “scandal” among Catholics, he said: “A totally double life: ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money … ’ A double life. And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others.”
“To be a Catholic like this, it’s better to be an atheist,” Francis opined, which may have been surprising, unsettling, and off-putting to many of his followers. But this is why we need Francis—to speak up against structures of injustice and to condemn the rigid, institutional status quo that permits them. He is saying that we must own up to issues that may make us uncomfortable in the West, such as fair wages, economic equality, and environmental stewardship, to name just a few.
There are socioeconomic and structural disparities in the world that are too vast to continue unnoticed. We live in a world where the equator marks this hemispheric inequality. The Global North is comprised of industrialized, developed, and well-off countries in North America and Europe that own the lion’s share of wealth and enjoy the highest GDP per capita and living standards. Then there is the Global South, which has three quarters of the world’s population, only one-fifth of world income, and lacks adequate infrastructure, health services, and education systems.
This is compounded by the oft-discussed 1 percent factor—a tiny sliver of the population has more wealth than the rest of the world combined. Global economic inequality rivals—and perhaps surpasses—that of the robber baron era in America.
The Global South is also disproportionately impacted by conflict, illicit trade, and cross-border flows of pollution. In fact, climate change may be the greatest indicator and example of the unfairness and injustice of vast inequality. Though it does and will affect us all, those least responsible are most at risk. Low-lying island states, poor coastal countries, and the least developed “would be first in the line of fire,” according to the United Nations. Despite having next to no carbon emissions per capita, these nations and populations are anticipating the worst in the looming climate catastrophe.
Francis hasn’t shied away from taking on climate change. Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, his papal encyclical about environmental stewardship, featured some emotionally charged commentary on the ethical and social dimensions of climate change. It was a measured indictment against the “throwaway culture” and rampant consumerism of the developed world, as well as a poignant call for the responsible and capable to do what they can to mitigate the growing problem of climate change.
When Trump was elected, Pope Francis congratulated him, along with a warning that ultimately, the “global stature of the United States will be measured by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need,” in no small way hinting at the current global refugee crisis.
This is all occurring in the midst of a rise in nationalism. The most developed countries are walking back on the cosmopolitanism and multilateralism celebrated in the Obama-Merkel-Cameron era, and instead embracing selective populism. Not the kind that Francis would endorse either, but a chauvinistic, parochial type where the protection and support a state will offer starts and stops at its borders.
Trump may be onto something when he prioritizes the economic well-being of “Americans first,” and questions other countries’ financial commitment to NATO or willingness to uphold their end of trade deals. But it seems misguided to pursue policy that puts our interests first at the expense of others, such as banning refugees, deporting undocumented immigrants en masse, cutting off legal immigration, or drawing down funding for international institutions. To put it in economic jargon, if absolute gains can be had instead of just relative gains, then we should seek them out. At a certain point, America über alles becomes an America against the world.
This isn’t to say that we are Satan incarnate, and I presume Francis does not believe that either. Rather, his advocacy and outspokenness serves as a reminder of the inequality and unfairness that we might like to turn a blind eye to. Unfortunately, complacency means complicity, and the decisions of those in the West (and North!) carry consequences for everyone, whether we like it or not.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor