Walking the Talk

How Pope Francis can really help the poor -- and why he'll help the Catholic Church, too, in the process.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In the days since Pope Francis I was elected by the Papal Conclave, he has been quizzed on everything from his stance on the Falkland Islands to his role in Argentina’s "dirty war." He has had to navigate diplomatic minefields — why was Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe at his inauguration, while British Prime Minister David Cameron wasn’t? And he has faced scrutiny over his position on social issues like marriage equality and women in the church. But at his inaugural mass last Tuesday, Francis showed once again where his focus has been since he first took his vows, and where he wants it to remain.

The pontiff, Francis told the hundreds of thousands in attendance, "must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important."

It’s a message that’s more relevant than ever: Francis’s papacy begins at a time when the globe has never been more socially unequal, economically volatile, or environmentally unsustainable. This is a world where 870 million men, women, and children go to bed hungry every night, and where nearly one billion have no access to clean water; a world where whole countries are threatened with bankruptcy and seemingly stable regimes can collapse because of the price of grain; a world of manmade climate change and the plundering of creation for the few at the expense of the many.

The Roman Catholic Church, throughout its history, has worked for and alongside the poorest people in the world. Francis — a man with a strong history of working for the poorest in his home country of Argentina — now has the opportunity to reaffirm this focus, as well as expand the church’s engagement on issues of poverty. But what can he actually hope to accomplish?

Much of the Catholic Church’s work on poverty takes place at the ground level: It provides an estimated 25 percent of the care worldwide for people living with HIV and AIDS. It runs more than 5,000 hospitals, with nearly half of those located in the Africa and the Americas — the Catholic Health Association of the United States is also the largest group of non-profit health care providers in the country. The church runs nearly 20,000 clinics around the world, more than 15,000 homes for the elderly, those who are terminally ill, and the disabled, and nearly 10,000 orphanages, mainly in Asia.

But there is always room for the church to do more. Because it spans the world and stands outside the market, business, and government, it is well placed to look at the world afresh — especially at the beginning of a new papacy. It has the ability to offer a unique perspective on both the challenges of the poor and the actions of the rich that can cause poverty, from environmental degradation to the activities of global corporations. As pope, Francis can take advantage of the church’s tremendous reach and influence to open up new conversations with different sectors of society on how to tackle these challenges productively.

Pope Benedict took a step toward this goal with a 2009 encyclical — a letter sent by the pope to his bishops — called Caritas in Veritate, or "Charity in Truth." In it, he warned of the dangers of unbalanced economic growth and against the pursuit of profit for its own sake. The encyclical had practical impact: The Catholic Church of England and Wales, for example, followed with a 2012 conference that brought major players in the business world — McKinsey, Barclays, and Unilever, among others — for a discussion on how business could better serve society.

At Francis’s inaugural, he spoke directly to the many powerful people in attendance — "those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political, and social life" — asking them to "be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another, and of the environment." It’s a sign that he plans to continue to following the path that Benedict started down.

A renewed focus on social justice isn’t just at the heart of the church’s central purpose, in accordance with its faith and the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s also a vital component of the renewal and re-energization many claim is necessary for the modern church.

The new pope’s emphasis on a church "that is poor and is for the poor" will resonate strongly with Catholic communities around the world. The majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live outside Europe and North America. In ensuring the Catholic Church is responding to their priorities, Pope Francis can demonstrate to burgeoning congregations in Africa and the traditional stronghold of Latin America that he is a pontiff in touch with the immense challenges faced by ordinary people. And he also has a chance to engage new audiences in the increasingly secular developed world, who are looking for something more than the worship of material wealth and possessions.

Although an emphasis on care for the poor may be important for how the church is viewed by the rest of the world, this isn’t a "reformist" agenda — the Catholic Church has worked for and with the poor throughout its history. Recent popes have challenged Western society’s acceptance of the inevitability of poverty. Pope Benedict told us that the market was not the master of us all, but rather a tool that had to be used for the benefit of everyone, and that every human has the right to flourish to his or her furthest potential.

Francis’s papacy can build on these previous teachings to further enhance the church’s support for the world’s poorest. In the words of our new pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi: "It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."

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