In less than a year in office, Pope Francis has certainly stirred things up. Eschewing the papal palace to live in a simple apartment, and mingling with ordinary people in St. Peter’s Square rather than staying cloistered with cardinals in the Curia, the pope, recently named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, appears to offer a sharp contrast to his recent predecessors.
Many of the pope’s statements have been highly arresting: He has attacked the “idolatry of money” and called unchecked capitalism “a new tyranny.” His trenchant critique of trickle-down economics has earned the ire of conservative commentators like the radio host Rush Limbaugh, who termed as “Marxist” the pope’s exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” published in November. The pope’s response was swift and unapologetic.
“Marxist ideology is wrong,” he told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. “But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended. There is nothing in the exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the church.”
Francis looks like a radical break with the past, but he is right: He represents an essential continuity in the Roman Catholic Church’s mission.
In Victorian times, Pope Leo XIII (in office, 1878-1903) was also denounced as a “socialist” when, in 1891, he issued the Catholic Church’s first formal statement on economic and social issues. In “Rerum Novarum,” he called for a living wage, opposed child labor and (a little belatedly) supported the idea of trade unions. Leo’s strong defense of private property in the same letter did not seem to win over critics.
Even Pius XII (1939-58) — one of the least-loved popes, thanks to the Vatican’s ambiguous wartime role — insisted that when fighting unjust social conditions, “Charity is not enough, for in the first place there must be justice.” In the late 1940s, it was a future pope (John XXIII, 1958-63) who, as the Vatican’s ambassador to France, helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations.
The statements of Pope Francis have certainly been more spirited than we have heard for a while — complete with exclamation marks, extremely rare in papal documents — and he has found new images to drive his points home. Poor people, he said recently, have been waiting a long time for the rich man’s glass to overflow. Instead, all that seems to happen is that the glass keeps getting larger.
In many ways, though, he has simply been putting a personal stamp on traditional Catholic social teaching. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure,” he asked, “but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Francis’ economic opinions may appear naïve to those more worried about productivity trends and price-earnings ratios than the 10,000 children who die every day from hunger. But his passion and purpose are timely. Last year, the World Bank reported that the number of extreme poor (those making less than $1.25 a day) had dropped in every region of the world, including Africa, but that the number of those living on less than $2 per day — 2.5 billion people, or 43 percent of the population of the developing world — had hardly budged in 30 years. In other words, improvements in public welfare have barely kept pace with population growth, and there is still much to be done to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.
The educational role of the church in the developing world has been powerful and often controversial. “All we want is a labor force,” a colonial governor lamented to missionaries in Madagascar a century ago, “and you’re turning them into human beings.”
The most visible arm of the church’s social mission is a network of humanitarian and development agencies known as Caritas (Latin for “charity”), which is the largest private organization of its kind after the International Committee of the Red Cross. Its total budget, $3 billion, is barely as much as the World Bank lends to large countries like Turkey or Brazil in a single year, but its reach and impact are unmatched.
In some African countries, as much as half of basic education and health services are provided by the church. Catholic hospitals and clinics around the world distribute about a third of all the antiretroviral drugs received by people living with H.I.V. and AIDS, and in India, where Catholics are no more than 2 percent of the population, the church is the second-largest care provider in this area after the government.
As a result of its work in basic health and education — and despite its obtuse views on birth control — in the last 50 years the church has probably lifted more people out of poverty than any other civic institution in history.
Until the election of Pope Francis, that mission seemed under threat as priests, religious and lay people raised in the reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) were retiring or dying off. At the same time, many younger clergy members were emphasizing evangelization and personal salvation, emphasizing the church’s message rather than just its outreach. In the opening hours of his papacy, Francis seemed to echo this complaint.
“We can build many things, but if we do not witness to Jesus Christ then it doesn’t matter,” he told the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel during his first Mass as pope. “We might become a philanthropic NGO, but we wouldn’t be the church.”
Since then, Francis has stressed that serving the poor and promoting social justice are central to the church’s identity and mission.
As the first pope from the developing world, Francis may help divert international concern about poverty away from imaginary geographical groupings like “north” and “south.” Being the leader of the largest and most influential faith community on earth, he can help reinforce the idea that every country, region and community is capable of taking steps to improve its citizens’ lives.
Pope Francis has renewed the hope of Catholic activists that faith and charity can go hand in hand.
Robert Calderisi is a former director of the World Bank and the author of Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development.