Historically, the Vatican is hardly a hotbed of progressive talking points. In the nearly two years since Jorge Mario Bergoglio become Pope Francis, however, the tone from the Catholic Church seems to be showing signs of change.
Francis represents a marked reversal from previous popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were often viewed as allies by social conservatives for the vocal opposition to abortion, communism, and other conservative hot-button issues.
Francis, spiritual leader of the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church, has publicly taken stances on progressive issues ranging from the environment, to the LGBT community, to women’s issues. In speeches and conversations with everyone from world leaders and everyday people, Francis has demonstrated that he’s interested in the idea of responsibility—doing more so that others in need can get help. And with his direct influence, he’s the kind of religious leader that has developed a following outside his own Catholic constituents.
While Francis has not made any substantial changes to Church doctrine (in his Jan. 12 “State of the World Address” he called abortion “horrific,”), he has shifted the focus of the Church to social justice issues, specifically to poverty.
Francis wrote in November that politics needs to put more emphasis on poverty:
“Responsibility for the poor and the marginalized must therefore be an essential element of any political decision, whether on the national or the international level.”
The pope has also been vocal in his criticism of unrestricted capitalism, calling it “a new tyranny” in November of 2013. The dangers of growing socioeconomic inequality, which Francis has called “unjust at its root,” have also come into the relatively new pope’s crosshairs. At a G20 meeting in November in Australia, Francis warned world leaders of the dangers of “unbridled consumerism” and urged them to tackle unemployment saying “many lives are at stake”.
He has denounced big business’ “idolatry of money,” writing that it would lead to “a new tyranny”. Francis has also slammed trickle-down economics, calling it “crude and naïve”. He even has stated that he considers our “culture of waste” to be partly responsible for climate change.
The pope even joined the conversation on breastfeeding in public this year when he encouraged mothers to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel.
In short, many of Francis’ sound bites could easily be mistaken for the tweets of a horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing, Communist Manifesto-carrying college student. Conscious of consumerism and business, Francis is calling out everyone to be more aware of how their financial decisions impact others. And that’s huge, in itself.
But the pope has also involved himself in the murky waters of international politics. President Obama, for example, credited Francis for playing a key role in the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross from Cuban custody and the recent thaw in US-Cuban relations.
Though the issue is vastly different from diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the pope’s success in bringing the US-Cuba deal to fruition bodes well for his odds of helping to unite world leaders.
In theme with many of his other public statements, the pope has emphasized the devastating effects that climate change could have on poorer nations.
Following an upcoming visit to Tacloban, the Philippine city devastated in 2012 by typhoon Haiyan, the pope will publish a rare encyclical urging Catholics to take action on climate change on moral and scientific grounds. The document will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will distribute it to parishioners.
It is noteworthy that Francis would make the announcement in the Philippines and not in, for example, Venice (which also faces grave threats from climate change). This action signifies that wealthier nations and individuals must be prepared to give more in the struggle against climate change than their lower-income counterparts.
With a worldwide median favorability rating of 60 percent, Francis may be poised to make significant headway in the fight against poverty and inequality.
Francis rejects the “superman” title many have placed upon him, but reception to his past public statements show that millions (if not billions) of people are listening to him carefully. And if the pope keeps up his public statements on social justice, he may just go down in history as a progressive superhero.
Canton Winer is a senior at Fordham University. He has worked as a Collegiate Correspondent for USA TODAY, and is the former Managing Editor and current columnist at The Fordham Ram. Check out his digital portfolio, or follow him on Twitter: @CantonWiner.