From climate change to same-sex marriage, Pope Francis has spoken out with a humanist authority on the world’s most pressing—and controversial—issues.
The hand that gives: Pope Francis blesses a child during a two-day pastoral visit to Turin, Italy, in June.
In the two years since he succeeded Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has taken more populist and progressive stances on a panoply of issues. The overall theme, local experts suggest, is an attempt to awaken the church community to poverty and the economic inequality around the world. His major written work, the 84-page exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), issued early in his papacy, outlined his feelings.
“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis wrote. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
“He is a Jesuit, and they are in general more progressive thinkers and care more about vulnerable people,” says Ronald Paul Hill, the Richard J. and Barbara Naclerio Endowed Chair at the Villanova University School of Business, who researches corporate social responsibility, public policy, and restricted consumer behavior. “Typically Latin America, where he comes from, is the worst in the world in disparity, with great wealth and great poverty, and he has seen that through much of his life. He views the idea of obscene wealth and inexcusable poverty as [an injustice] he wants to see overcome.”
Francis also sees climate change and the need for humans to counteract it as part of that inequality, since it affects poor nations more acutely. “[There is] unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us,” he wrote, noting that developed countries were primarily responsible and should feel an obligation to help less affluent nations cope.
“There is unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us.” —Pope Francis
“Our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings,” the pope has written. “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity.”
“From where he comes, the pollution of the air and the water shortens lives desperately. If you want to help people right now suffering in poverty, stopping climate change would be a good first step,” says Leonard J. Swidler, professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue in Temple University’s Department of Religion.
Though Francis clings to Catholic doctrine against same-sex marriage, he has long been amenable to a civil-union-type approach; perhaps his most oft-quoted line was in response to the acceptance of homosexuality: Since God created gay people, “Who am I to judge?” “For millennia the papacy was judging by burning people at the stake,” says Swidler. “He has reversed all that nonsense.”
More than anything, Francis has talked about getting his community outside the cloisters, to see the world’s problems and fix them. “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” he has written.
“This is a social pope,” says Brett T. Wilmot, the associate director of Villanova’s Ethics Program. “He is out in the world, not just speaking to theologians. It is a voice that others hear and understand.”