In 2013 when Pope Benedict XVI abdicated and left the Vatican by helicopter, a move nearly as dramatic as his red shoes, the Roman Catholic Church found itself at a crucial point in its history. With an anxious excitement, many Roman Catholics wondered if the next pontiff would be able to lead the Church more steadily into the vision it constructed for itself at Vatican II. This, along with questions surrounding the Church’s enabling of, and complicity in, the systematic sexual abuse of children, and the mismanagement of finances left the global Church in a state of disillusionment and crisis. In electing the next pope, the College of Cardinals had to do whatever they could to ensure that the new leader could revamp and revitalize the Catholic Church marred in controversy. They elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the first Latin American pope (and the first non-European in more than 1,300 years) to the papacy.
What this election would mean is that the Eurocentric lens that has dominated Roman Catholicism over the centuries would perhaps be challenged, not only by individuals forced to exist at the peripheries of the Church, but by its very leader. The context out of which Francis emerges is one that is vastly different from many of his predecessors, if only because he has, over the decades of his leadership in the Argentinian Catholic Church, been consistently confronted with a volatile political climate, the long-standing effects of late-capitalism on the lives of the poor, and the selling and ravishing of natural resources and indigenous land for the benefit of those living in the first world. He witnessed the terrorism associated with Argentina’s Dirty War, where thousands of dissidents of the military junta were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. These are Argentina’s desaparacidos (the disappeared) and they haunt Pope Francis’s imagination and may have shaped his perspectives on the dignity of each human being. It has also informed his sense of suspicion of world super-powers, particularly the United States, whose political leadership seemed to take a stance in defense of the military junta, sanitizing and justifying their actions.
Such a cold calculus coupled with an indifference to such suffering, an attitude embodied by US politicians serving ideological and corporate interests, has also been a central concern of Pope Francis. Informed by the depths of poverty faced by millions of Latin Americans, who often must try to subsist on anywhere between 4 and 10 dollars per day, he has fiercely condemned the unbridled manifestations of late capitalism, the destruction of the earth to serve consumeristic impulses that create and support a culture of excess and greed, and the regular violence and dehumanization the two-thirds world faces as they are forced into provision of the idols of the first world. To add to this, such pressures have led to a variety of socio-political and economic instabilities that have forced migrations, often to the countries that, while responsible for cultivating a context wherein migration was necessary for survival, would systematically create barriers to resist their inclusion into their societies.
These themes—the evils of consumeristic globalized capitalism, the degradation of the environment to serve the needs of the first world, and the treatment of undocumented migrants—have characterized the encyclical writings, speeches, and sermons of Pope Francis. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he claims:
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
No country bears greater guilt of playing in such politics as the United States of America and Pope Francis has, for the first time in 78 years of life, arrived with his concerns in the United States. In a recent New York Times piece it was argued that Francis’s avoidance of the United States may have been intentional. And yet now he is here, and many hope that his message will be both challenging and revelatory to the US.
Along with visiting the White House, addressing the United Nations, and attending the World Meeting of Families, he will complete the controversial canonization mass for Junipero Serra, and is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress. Though precise prognostication is impossible, based on Francis’s focus on the poor, the marginalized, the environment, unfettered capitalism, the treatment of migrants, and the connections between all of the former, it is probably safe to say that his address to Congress could include these topics. From this list of potential topics, one may discern that even “progressive” politicians will feel uneasy. Our party system regularly constructs and focuses upon differences between the parties, which places a smoke-screen on the principles that the two parties share. Beliefs related to undocumented migrants and capitalistic enterprise are primary examples of these commonalities, which lawmakers may expect Francis to address. While he may leave “progressive” politicians squirming, they have not yet realized the extent to which they may be discomfited by the pontiff’s speech. This is one difference that is playing out between the respective parties as conservative lawmakers have already begun to air their grievances about Pope Francis’s message. One conservative lawmaker, Paul Gosar, who happens to be Roman Catholic, actually plans to boycott Francis’s address. Gosar is justifying his decision by claiming the pope “acts and talks like a leftist politician” and so should be “treated like one.”
If Gosar is suggesting that Francis’s message deviates from the tradition of the Catholic Church, I would encourage him to do some research. The non-Eurocentric lens through which Francis analyzes the “signs of the times,” does not mean that the themes that he is addressing are completely new. In fact, the core of Francis’s message is a continuation of a long history of Catholic Social Thought. He may be read as a radical progressive by conservative politicians; however, in doing so they neglect the areas where they are in agreement with the pontiff. That Francis carries on the tradition of the Church is no more evident than in his statements—that mirror the hierarchical Church’s—on the role of women, reproductive justice, and sexuality. These teachings are his proverbial Achilles heel. It is where his vitriol on unbridled capitalism, environmental degradation, and treatment of migrants is in danger of being undermined. He, like his predecessors, attempts to separate issues related to reproductive health from issues of poverty, issues of dehumanization and violence from the ideological perspectives on what it means to be human—as men and women (only) with gender, sexuality, race, and class intimately tied to this definition. But these issues cannot be disentangled from one another and attempts to do so lead to a lacunae in the Church’s forceful social teachings.
Though this may be the case, many, even those who have a penchant for critique of the Roman Catholic Church are elated about Pope Francis’s visit to the US. Papal visits, in general, tend to invigorate the Catholic populace wherever they occur. But Francis’s inspirational reach touches far beyond Catholics. It seems that Francis’s voice is deeply desired across the globe, and desperately needed in the US by lawmakers and the populace alike, even if it is imperfect.