The Audacity of Pope


(Catholic Church of England and Wales / Flickr)

In 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Poland. It was an official visit, the invitation extended by the Communist government. The pope—once known as Karol Wojtyla, an actor-turned-priest from a small village outside Krakow—managed to pull off the impossible. He gave speeches about economic justice that one of my Polish friends told me were more socialist than anything you’d hear from a Communist government in those days. And yet he also buoyed the hopes of the opposition movement. One year later, workers in Gdansk created the Solidarity trade union, a movement also devoted to economic justice, and Communism in Eastern Europe was suddenly living on borrowed time.

Questioned about his repressive policies against Catholics, Stalin once quipped, “The Pope? How many divisions does he have?” Modern popes of course don’t command any military forces. But as John Paul II’s example suggests, their influence over foreign policy by way of soft power should not be underestimated. After all, how many divisions does the Soviet Union still command?

And now we have a very different pope in Rome, one who has immediately challenged the orthodox style that John Paul II favored and that Benedict XVI further elevated. From Argentina, the new pope has brought the Franciscan ethos of humility into the magnificent halls of the Vatican. Indeed, Pope Francis signaled his new style by eschewing the richly appointed papal apartment in favor of the Saint Marta hotel. That’s a four-star accommodation, but it’s still a step down from where his predecessors bunked. It allows the new pope to maintain some distance from the flatteries and intrigues of the Vatican, what he has called “the leprosy of the papacy.”

The new pope has made his mark so far with his view that the Church should be, frankly, more catholic in its embrace of others: gays, atheists, those who use contraception, those overcome with doubt. He has even gone so far as to call proselytism “solemn nonsense.” Some of his non-judgmental attitude can be glimpsed in his pre-papal remarks, for instance in his published conversation with the Argentine rabbi Abraham Skorka. But now it seems as though he was simply biding his time until he could be in a position to speak more freely.

When I was back in Poland this August, many interviewees mentioned to me that the Church there doesn’t really know what to do about these unorthodox views. There’s no tradition of “liberation theology” in Poland. There’s not even much of a tradition of liberal Catholicism. Church officials in Poland are scrambling to square the pope’s pronouncements with clerical convention. Good luck.

Will the new pope not only challenge the social status quo but also, like John Paul II, the world order as well? Here are three areas where the new pope could seriously rock the boat, based on some of his utterances so far.

Immigration – In September, the new pope emphatically stood with the vulnerable with his message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity,” he wrote. “They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.” Earlier in the summer, he took his first trip outside Rome to, of all places, the tiny island of Lampedusa, a transit point for African immigrants to Europe. He has even declared that the Church should provide its unused buildings for asylum-seekers.

To do: Perhaps a visit by Pope Francis to key House districts in the United States could provide the push the Obama administration needs to get comprehensive immigration reform, which the Senate passed over the summer, through Congress.

Economic justice – Modern popes have frequently taken a critical attitude toward concentrations of wealth and the growing divide between rich and poor. John Paul II worried that globalization was becoming a new form of colonialism. “In reality, the wealth produced often remains in the hands of only a few, with a consequent further loss of sovereignty of national States, already rather weak in the area of development,” he wrote. Even the more business-friendly Benedict worried about growing inequality.

Pope Francis has gone further. After all, he adopted his name to honor the legacy of Francis of Assisi, who abandoned his wealth to live practically as a beggar, ministering to the poor, the lepers, and even the animals. Last month, Francis decried the “globalization of indifference” and urged world leaders to break down “the barriers of individualism and the slavery of profit at all cost.” He has not been afraid to point fingers. Growing inequality has resulted “from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are charged with providing for the common good.” Pope Francis the Keynesian!

To do: Pope Francis has already met with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to talk about ways to alleviate extreme poverty. Perhaps he could next meet with the IMF’s Christine Lagarde to roll back the austerity mindset that dominates thinking about the global economy.

Islam – Pope Benedict caused a stir in 2006 when he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s unflattering description of Mohammed’s legacy as “evil and inhuman.” He subsequently apologized, but his views of Islam remained rather medieval. Pope Francis, by contrast, has immediately sought to repair ties with the world of Islam. As Akbar Ahmed and Craig Considine have written in The Washington Post, “Before an audience of ambassadors from 180 countries, he explained how he wanted to work for peace and bridge-building between peoples. Muslims and Catholics, he claimed, needed to intensify their dialogue. Positive shockwaves were sent into Muslim-Catholic circles, and Muslim scholars and religious institutions around the world welcomed Pope Francis’s election.”

Pope Francis has sent letters to major Muslim figures, such as the top imam of the University of Al-Azhar, as well as a message to all Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan. In 1076, Pope Gregory VII sent a similar message to the emir of Mauretania that emphasized the common roots of Islam and Christianity. Twenty years later, that same pope provided the ideological underpinning of the First Crusade.

To do: Pope Francis could prove similarly pivotal with his messages, but this time in helping the world move from the heightened tensions of the post-9/11 era into an era of mutual understanding. Maybe it’s time for another major address in Cairo, with a new and more pointed message about the need to cooperate across confessional boundaries.

Over the last five years, we’ve had a chance to evaluate the “audacity of hope.” There has been stirring rhetoric about nuclear disarmament and building bridges to the Muslim world combined with disappointing policies on drone wars, climate change, and human rights in places like Bahrain. In less than a year, Pope Francis has offered similarly stirring rhetoric. If this “audacity of pope” not only shakes up the Catholic Church (Vatican III, anyone?) but also helps to reframe globalization and geopolitics (a tall order indeed), then the Nobel committee might start thinking about awarding its first peace prize to a pontiff.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.



    • johnfeffer

      actually, I not only read a book, I wrote one: Crusade 2.0 (City Lights, 2012). The First Crusade was an attempt to retake Jerusalem for Christianity. The last time I looked, Jerusalem was located outside of Europe….

      • Sue

        Thank you for persevering through this commentary. So much of what was routinely taught in excellent schools when I was young – many years ago – has been given a different spin today. Unfortunately, even folks who check things out will find some article somewhere that seems to support their contention.

      • Monostory1

        The same forces who bankrolled the Crusades, are the ones who are pushing for war today in the Middle East, but you won’t find it by reading a BOOK that was written in the west, however if you study history with a discerning eye it is not difficult to connect the dots.

    • Guest


    • goedelite

      The only conflict between the Christian world and the Muslims until the 8th century was not with the European part of the Christian world but with Constantinople, the remaining Roman empire. The Byzantine Empire had held sway in the Middle East and North Africa after the fall of Rome in 469 CE. Well before the rise of Islam (c.565 CE), the Emperor Justinian had to fall back ingloriously and very expensively to a couple of outposts in Italy and to the Middle East where he still held sway against the Syrians. The Muslims, even when they expanded in the 6th century CE, were far more civilized than the Byzantines and later the crusaders with regard to religious freedom.

  • John Kirk

    You may have read a book on the crusades, but you obviously haven’t read some of Pope Francis’ interviews, in which he clearly states that the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace were hardly luxurious and that he chose to live in the Doma Santa Marta because he liked the contact it gave him with others. Of course, as long as you can continue to draw misleading and disrespectful contrasts between Francis and Benedict, I guess it really doesn’t matter.

    • johnfeffer

      Actually I did read interviews with him, and that’s why I wrote: “It allows the new pope to maintain some distance from the flatteries and intrigues of the Vatican, what he has called “the leprosy of the papacy.” Or perhaps you skipped that in your cursory reading of my column.
      As for disrespectful contrasts, yes I plead guilty to that. I have much more respect for Pope Francis than Pope Benedict. The latter was aligned with Opus Dei and all the far-rightwing elements of Catholicism that I find distasteful.

      • John Kirk

        “Richly appointed papal apartments” directly contradicts what Pope Francis himself has said about the same. And the leprosy remark wasn’t made in the context of the papal apartments at all. Do you imagine there’s some kind of moat around the Doma Santa Marta that the Apostolic Palace didn’t have? Like the rest of the secular media, you’ve come over all faint and fluttery on what is basically just an issue of personal style, which each pope back to Peter has probably had.

        • johnfeffer

          no, it’s not just an issue of personal style. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a pope in the modern world. The previous pope aligned himself with the powerful; the current pope aligns himself with the powerless. I look forward to watching the current pope’s efforts to throw the moneychangers out of the temple…

          • John Kirk

            With what “powerful” did Pope Benedict align himself?

          • johnfeffer

            Communion and Liberation, for one. Opus Dei for another. Powerful figures within the Church who wanted to suppress the pedophilia scandals for a third.

          • John Kirk

            You’ve read far too much Dan Brown and Pope Benedict did a great deal to cleanse the Church of the evil against children (and that according to his successor).

          • johnfeffer

            I’ve never read Dan Brown. Is he a church historian?

            I won’t go into the details here, but credible evidence has emerged that before he became pope, Ratzinger protected pedophile priests. ( When he was pope, Benedict continued to support the 19 accused bishops. At the very least, despite his apologies, Benedict’s record on this issue is mixed.

            I doubt anyone will convince you of the malign direction that Pope Benedict took the Church, a direction encouraged by much of the hierarchy and many of his predecessors. But I hope you will, like the new pope, be open to the possibility of change rather than clinging so desperately to the pious orthodoxies of the past.

  • Magystelling

    I do love our new Pope and the changes he is making but I am very disappointed in the fact that he has done nothing about the continued efforts of Bishops , world wide, to cover up the actions of predator priest. Yes the matter has been partially addressed on the grounds of Vatican City with penalties for sexual abuse with in the confines of Vatican city . But “Secreta Coninerie” is still attached to Moto Protrio , revised 2010. This attachment says allegations of a sexual abuse by a cleric must remain secret in any place where the laws of a land do not require reporting. This attachment seems to have provided the Hierarchy with an excuse to lie. under oath, in secular court ordered depositions and testimony by using the policy of “mental reservation” .

    Until our Pope addresses the “Cover Up Phenomena ” we will continue to have members of the hierarchy plastered on the front pages of our news papers or history of their actions sent viral across the internet.There will be more like Bishop Finn, a convicted predator protector, Arch Bishop Neinstendt, cover up artist outed by a whistle blower or Bishop Myers a lax Court appointed supervisor of a predator who really didn’t care if the accused priest had contact with vulnerable children..These members of the Hierarchy who chose to continue to cover up predator priest are NOT doing so to protect the Church. They are doing so to protect themselves and in all probabilities a deeper problem in their diocese.

    • johnfeffer

      I couldn’t agree more

  • goedelite

    In physics, the Nobel Prize is often not awarded for many decades after the deserving work has been done. I think this delay is far more appropriate in the realms of politics and political economy. The notorious Peace Prize Committee made themselves such by awarding through very poor judgment on a number of occasions, the last of which was in 2009 to a war-monger named Barack Obama. The award was made in the “audacity of hope” instead of in the demonstrations by actions. I don’t think John Feffer really wants to emulate the Oslo PP Committed by another “audacity of hope”. One more observation about the Nobel PP. The monetary gift that comes with the citation is far too large. The honor ought to be more important than the gift. So large a financial reward makes the Prized difficult to turn down. The recipient can rationalize: “I can do good works with the money.” That makes the gift less an honor than it should be.