by Aaron Spitler
May 8, 2017
With the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, scores of international observers remarked that the once venerable, geopolitically-prominent Roman Catholic Church had seen its heyday. Dwindling congregation numbers across Europe, the continued exclusion of women from all church affairs, and an infamous slew of sexual assault cases have beleaguered the esteemed institution in recent years and put its standing as a “moral mediator” within foreign affairs in doubt. During this period of unexpected flux, a common critique emerged: the Vatican remained incapable of structural change and unwilling to provide impactful social support that could meet the challenges of a modern era. However, Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis of Argentina, would quickly reinvigorate interest in the Church under a bold modernizing agenda that has won international acclaim. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lauded the humanitarian for his remarks on the moral responsibility of nations to ensure accessible healthcare to those most in need, going on to partner with the bishop in an initiative to revitalize cancer research through global collaboration. Cuban President Raul Castro recognized him as an instrumental broker in the rapprochement negotiations between the communist island and its former Cold War adversary, the United States. Even Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a staunch leftist ideologue with strong atheistic leanings, saw a “pontiff of the poor” that espoused damning criticisms of the capitalist system and austerity measures that wracked the fiscally-insolvent Mediterranean country. In a matter of four years, Pope Francis reshaped the Vatican under a liberalizing regimen that has re-popularized an ancient institution relegated to the fringes of relevancy. Above all, his ambitious diplomatic strategy has reminded many of the Church’s potent soft power.
One issue the Jesuit has paid particular attention to is ecological degradation, as he has not only used his platform to warn of the “grave consequences” facing underdeveloped regions, but has also commented on policy solutions to counteract unchecked consumption of resources. Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home, an addendum to Catholic ideology released in 2015, targeted his brand of green advocacy towards mass materialism, affirming that consumerism thrust long-term sustainability of the planet into jeopardy. The document includes a litany of environmental problems identified as directly linked industrial avarice; unchecked pollution, escalating levels of greenhouse gases, and the accumulation of toxic waste are a few of the complications listed that the pontiff slams as unequivocally related to human activity. But first and foremost, Pope Francis highlights climate change as the most pressing environmental concern of our time, stating that scientific consensus is not at odds with religious doctrine while calling on conservative skeptics to educate themselves. Moreover, the document explicitly challenges existing efforts by Western governments to manage the phenomenon and calls for more thoughtful answers. The pope directs his major criticisms towards “cap-and-trade” agreements”, in which government provisions impose limits on companies’ carbon emissions but allow these groups to trade for larger allowances. In his view, this arrangement is susceptible towards market manipulation, contains ineffective measures to enact penalties, and maintains anemic oversight bodies that only entrench existing dynamics of economic inequality. Though some ecological economists take issue with his appraisal of their policy, many agree that the pope’s activism may galvanize members of the faithful to engage with scientific research and recognize the spiritual merits of environmental justice.
Moreover, Pope Francis has become a thundering voice for the compassionate treatment of those displaced by the global migrant crisis, arguing for solidarity during a time of rampant xenophobia and nativism. Although he concedes that nations have every right to secure their borders and fight terrorism, the Bishop of Rome has used his highly-connected position to condemn prejudicial rhetoric employed by nationalist politicians and has called upon leading nations to show flexibility in the amount of refugees they receive. In a speech to a gathering outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, he strategically framed the movement of undocumented travelers as the “biggest tragedy” since the Second World War and urged a more ethical integration mechanism to recognize migrants’ human rights. While social attitudes remain hardened towards those fleeing strife, the Vatican has made great strides to seize this moment and live up to the ideals of openness and tolerance enshrined in institutions like the European Union and the United Nations. In one poignant gesture, the pontiff personally invited twelve Syrian refugees from a Greek resettlement camp to join him at his residence in Rome. According to various observers, this highly-publicized act of sympathy sent a message that the Church is set to reclaim “moral leadership” from the secular states of the West, peddling a narrative frames these nations as guilty of negligence and political cowardice. These contentious claims have thrust him into conflict with many anti-globalist conservatives, with current U.S. President Donald Trump chief among them. The two have engaged in a verbal sparring match over the latter’s restrictionist immigration initiatives, questioning the Republican’s Christian scruples during this time of upheaval. In challenging the nominal “leader of the free world”, and his broad alliance of rightists, the pope’s foray into the realm of public debate reveals a radical, but compelling, alternative: depoliticizing the issue in an appeal for the common good.
Lastly, Francis’ largest undertaking to transform the Vatican into a proactive force for change has come from within. The pope has made concerted efforts to diversify its internal leadership, recognizing that global interconnectedness must make its way into the Church’s corridors. Though the European contingent still dominates the College of Cardinals, Francis has recognized that the growing Catholic presence in post-colonial states will lead to a major demographic shift within the faith. With this in mind, he has appointed numerous bishops from these regions, especially Africa, and aims to incorporate minority perspectives into mainstream Catholicism. Dieudonne Nzapalainga, a bishop from the devastated Central African Republic, tirelessly worked to facilitate cross-cultural communication between warring Muslim and Christian factions and was promoted to the cadre in Rome to act as a special advisor to Francis on interfaith relations. Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Abuja, heading a program to rebuild community capacity and combat the violent extremism of militant groups like Boko Haram. Even Philippe Ouerdraogo, Burkina Faso’s “little bishop of the savannah”, received a prestigious appointment because of his dedication to helping the marginalized and will partner with the pontiff to improve literacy rates across the continent. By enhancing collaboration with African leaders and increasing their visibility, the pontiff hopes to atone for the exclusionary practices of the past while charting an inclusive path towards responsible development in the future. Yet erasing the perception that African clergymen are nothing more than “junior partners” to Rome’s European elite may be easier said than done.
At first glance, Pope Francis’ determination to reshuffle the Vatican’s sluggish bureaucracy, remedy the social ills of today and build bridges, not walls, between communities has ignited a religious revolution that will change the trajectory of Catholicism for generations to come. Yet in his crusade for change, some unexpected obstacles have hampered his progress. Critics have looked at his inaction as head of the Jesuit Order in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s “Dirty War” as a worrisome sign, citing that his support for the military junta in power undercuts his concern for the poor. His relaxation on who is allowed communion, a sacred rite among followers, to those who are divorced or former adulterers has become a major point of contention and alienated strict traditionalists within the group. Underlying all these commentaries is the notion that Francis’ reformism is “pushing too much, too fast”, disregarding historical context and institutional realities during his tenure. Even so, allies and enemies alike note that Francis is a man of ironclad principles, humbly serving the Church in its mission to serve the forgotten and maligned. This mindset will do more than allow the faith to recover its place as an vital geopolitical actor, but will ensure its survival in a rapidly-changing religious landscape.
Aaron Spitler is a Sophomore B.A. student at the College of William & Mary and an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.