Let me be clear: my dog doesn’t care about the new pope. He’s not Roman Catholic (he’s labradoodle) and he has no political interest whatsoever beyond when we will next go for a walk and how he can steal other dogs’ squeaky toys. So I haven’t tried to convince him of why the election of Pope Francis matters, and if you share his indifference to the world beyond your immediate senses, then for you there is no reason either to care about any politics, papal or otherwise. Just sit back, hope for good weather, and watch the oceans continue to rise.
But I believe that what happens in the world is worth paying attention to. Maybe it’s an inherited gene: European Jews who, unlike my parents, didn’t pay attention to politics in the 1930s tended to have fewer children. While you are alive, paying attention to the political weather helps you to stay alive. Perhaps sadly, it is not sufficient in the long run, but it really does help in the short term.
Why care about the pope? Because the pope is the head of the Roman Catholic church, the largest church on this planet. It has about 1.2 billion members, (55% of all Christians, 1/6 of the world) and has tripled in size in the past hundred years. In other major religions, the heads or senior clerics can only interpret revelation, not receive it. Sunni Islam has about the same number of followers, but they are divided among four different branches. More significantly, Islam does not believe in ongoing revelation from Allah, whereas the Catholic Church does. So the extremely hierarchical nature of the church means it’s more important who the Pope is, because he has a power to make changes that leaders of other major religions do not.
That Pope Francis is a conservative is a given: he was chosen by the College of Cardinals, most of whom had been appointed by the two previous conservative popes. And the Church does not make radical changes quickly under any leader; no large institutions do. There are certainly many areas in which I am certain Pope Francis is unlikely to make the changes I would like to see (equality of women, end to LGBT discrimination, end to celibacy of priests). But there are areas in which it’s already clear that he will make a difference.
Throughout much of the world, religion and politics are entwined. Historically, the great mistake of the leftwing in North America and Europe has been to abandon religion and spirituality to the right, the Tea Party and their ilk. There were leftwing religious leaders who made a difference a half century ago: Martin Luther King in the US, and Tommy Douglas in Canada. Where are the leaders today who lead people on the two main issues with which the world is confronted: the increasing inequality of wealth, and androgenic climate change? Some do speak out, but none has galvanized a mass movement. There are reasons to hope that this is about to change.
The largest rise in the number of Catholics has occurred in Latin America (42% of the total) and it is on that continent where the Argentinian Pope will have the most political impact. 75% of Latin Americans live in governments ruled by “left-leaning presidents”, a unique bulwark in our world against the rising tide of feudalism (code-name: “austerity”) that has prevailed elsewhere. Pope Francis has been clear and unambiguous about his stand on economic issues, saying, “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities,” and that it is “immoral, illegitimate and unjust” to allow economic inequality in a country to grow. In his first mass, he defined the pope’s role as protecting “the poorest, the weakest, the least important: …the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.” In a world in which many of us are struggling to reverse increasing inequity, Pope Francis is a significant ally. Asked what he most admired about St. Francis, he answered, “He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time.”
Environmentally, it was clear where he stood from the moment he took the name Francis. Again, in his opening mass, he was explicit: “The vocation of being a ‘protector’, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live….In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!” At a time when political leaders of almost all colours (except green) appear to view the environment as a mere impediment to, or source of a higher GNP, such an attitude is hugely significant.
The new pope has an awareness of AIDS that his predecessor never showed. In 2001 he washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients in a hospice. Africa, (in which the number of Catholics has tripled since 1978) has 2/3 of the world’s HIV cases. Francis has said that condoms “can be permissible” to prevent AIDS infection. That too will make a huge difference to those living there. Yes, more could be done, but this is a change and a significant one.
Like my dog, I’m not a Roman Catholic. I don’t see the Pope as a Messiah. He is a man who has suddenly assumed a position of huge political, spiritual, and moral power. Looking at his political views, there are real reasons to hope that he will be an ally on some of the most important issues, and we need allies. I am not sweeping over whether he may or may not have done as much as he could have in fighting the death-squads in Argentina, nor that he remains on the wrong side of the fight for equality in matters of gender and sexual preference. But in the fight to save the planet, and the fight against huge economic inequalities, the odds have shifted slightly towards our side. And I’m grateful enough to say a prayer of thanks for that.