Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. He has also proven to be an astute and energetic diplomat—his list of interventions in international politics is growing. He is outspoken on migration and refugee issues, was involved in brokering an upgrade in U.S.-Cuban relations and takes part in debates on hot-button topics from income inequality to climate change. Francis’ view of the papacy is clearly geopolitical.
Is that a good thing? The pope, after all, is not accountable to any electorate. He speaks with a moral authority that is binding to the faithful, but otherwise holds no legal authority. In realpolitik terms, Stalin’s criteria for considering the papacy’s geostrategic significance (“How many divisions has the Pope?”) still holds. The Vatican is not the strategic superpower it was centuries ago.
Yet, Pope Francis has successfully inserted himself in many geopolitical debates. Joseph Nye has written on America’s cultural and political “soft power” and its impact on the world. Pope Francis has demonstrated a similar soft power in the papacy. Where his predecessor Pope John Paul II—perhaps the last “geopolitical” pope—maintained a singular focus on communism, Pope Francis’ engagement is refracted along a spectrum of policy issues. His engagement is a good thing, for many reasons, some specific to particular areas of policy, and some more general.
First, at a time when religious extremism is increasingly becoming a major concern, Pope Francis consistently emphasizes amity among religious leaders. In February 2016, Pope Francis met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, the first time the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches had met in nearly a thousand years. Some saw political motives behind the meeting: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close ties to the Orthodox Church, his need for Pope Francis’ backing on Russia’s position on Syria, and his desire to ride the pope’s wave of popularity were argued to be the meetings’ true motivations.
Even if true, this view is incomplete. Pope Francis’ views on Syria cannot affect the Obama administration policy any more than they can tilt U.S.-Russian relations in a major way. The move to help close a millennium-long schism between the world’s Christian churches, however, is meaningful to those beyond either faith. Christianity cannot contribute honestly to the fight against radical and violent sects of Islam while maintaining its own outdated internal divisions. Moreover, the message that neither the Catholic nor Orthodox Churches need to make any immediate changes in order to coexist in respectful communication is a visible and vitally important counterpoint to religious extremism. As an institutional leader, Francis is practicing the solidarity he preaches. The significance of that should not be underestimated.
Second, Francis’ messages on immigration are a needed bulwark against rising xenophobia in the United States and Europe. Immigration, whether driven by wartime displacement or new economic opportunities, is an urgent issue for both the U.S. and Europe. National governments are the ultimate arbiters of the legal parameters governing immigration: who gets in, when, where and with what benefits. Pope Francis’ voice on the issue remains important in combatting knee-jerk political responses—the fear of the foreign “others” coming to threaten jobs and security—that are common across national borders.
Third, under the banner of adverse consequences of consumerism, Francis weaves together calls for action on income inequality and climate change in a unique way. His 2015 encyclical Laudato Si was heralded as a call to action on climate change. But Francis went further in his geopolitical analysis: the “global north”, driven by the lone goal of profit maximization, exploits the labor and environment of less developed countries, leaving them both poorer and more vulnerable to climate change.
Here, Francis walks a fine line: economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, and is not an inherent evil. A close read of Francis’ message, however, shows his criticism is tempered. Capitalism is not the enemy but, as many economists agree, it can create adverse consequences for many while producing gains for a few. Ultimately, Francis’ message of environmental and social sustainability sits comfortably alongside much of what the United Nations and other international organizations have written on the topic.
Pope Francis is popular with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. That stems in part from a popular hunger to see an institutional leader approaching issues from a spirit of inclusion that has long been missing from America’s political culture. The value of soft power is inherently hard to measure and so is often ignored or denigrated. Poisonous politics, however, have created real consequences in America’s government. Progress on the issues discussed above and many others has stalled. The need for an antidote to the current tone in government transcends individual religious belief, crosses borders, and seems to fit the concept of a soft power solution. If Pope Francis is willing to pursue it, more power to him.