A few weeks before the release this summer of Laudato si’, Pope Francis’s manifesto on ecology and poverty, I had a chance to see the pontiff, speck-size, in Rome. He is the first Third World pope, but the Old World church was very much in evidence. At an outdoor papal Mass, it seemed as if hundreds of variously costumed men stood between Francis and the nearest woman, their outfits representing dozens, if not hundreds, of medieval societies that refuse to go away. It was hard to know whether the pope at the center was in charge of it all or imprisoned inside.
What G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead” is alive and well, even in the fast times of Pope Francis—a system in which the mere fact of being corporeally alive does not confer on us the power to easily change what the dead have put in place. This can render the church flatfooted and even cruel as the world around it refuses to wait; former Roman Catholics outnumber most religious groups in the United States, a trend that even Francis’s popularity has not reversed. But Americans are especially impatient. A more liberal, dexterous, and fashionable church would probably not long claim to represent, as one beloved community, over a billion of the poorest and richest people in the world.
Nor would Francis’s broadsides against global capitalism hit so hard. “No one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism and consider themselves Christian,” he wrote in his days as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. As pope, he puts the matter more directly: “Such an economy kills.” In Laudato si’, he regards the environmental crisis as an economic-justice crisis as well: “The same mind-set which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.”
This pope, like millions of Catholics, comes from the southern side of the equator, and it was there that he learned how the global economy works. In Argentina, even while in high office, he made it a habit to hear confessions in impoverished districts. “He’s a person who comes from walking through the poor neighborhoods, from walking with those who are in very bad conditions, from being with the unions and all that,” says Néstor Escudero, a member of the Argentine NGO La Alameda, which opposes human trafficking and organizes cooperatives among victims. Bergoglio lent his presence and protection to La Alameda, along with other groups that faced danger because of their work.
Some of the most emphatic speeches of Francis’s papacy have come at gatherings of social movements, including one in Rome in 2014 and another this year in Bolivia. “You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives,” he told his listeners in Bolivia. “I want to unite my voice with yours in this fight,” he said in Rome. The early symbolic acts of his papacy—adopting simple vestments and apartments, washing the feet of a Muslim girl in juvenile detention—reflect a formidable and contradictory populism: Go to the margins, call attention to the poor, make headlines for yourself in the process.