Since he was elected as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has sparked enthusiasm throughout the world. His unorthodox stance on religious matters and the viewpoints that he expressed on worldly affairs have gained him a tremendous reputation in few months. So much so, that his involvement in the repression of progressive priests during Argentina’s bloody military dictatorship of the 1970s was quickly forgotten. Today, even left-leaning voices are willing to postpone criticism of the on-going negative influence of the Church in several areas –from gender and sexuality to education and women’s right to abortion–, to celebrate Francis endorsement of a number of just causes.
It is true that this Pope has had progressive stances in multiple fronts. He is the first Pope to take serious steps against the pervasive pedophilia among priests. He has had a welcoming attitude toward divorced people and warm words for gays. And generally speaking, he is encouraging the Church to follow a path of greater commitment to the poor. In all these areas, Francis represents a significant shift by comparison to earlier popes. In worldly affairs, he has criticized capitalist abuses and issued strong warnings concerning the environmental crisis. He also spoke out for refugees, urged the democratization of the UN and of the international financial institutions and condemned “oppressive lending systems”. Earlier on, and despite Israeli opposition, he signed a treaty with Palestine and he was also key in the US-Cuba rapprochement. There is no doubt that, comparatively speaking, Francis is far more progressive than his predecessors.
The vast majority of these positive traits, however, still remain within the symbolic realm. Francis has been generous in gesture, warm words and just statements, but in terms of actual changes, his record is still unworthy of the aura of reformer that he gained himself. After all, he still maintains the traditional views of the Church regarding the ordination of women, celibacy, abortion, contraception and homosexuality. So far we have seen nothing comparable to, for instance, the radical changes in the Anglican Church in the past decades, after which women can be ordained (there are several female bishops today) and same-sex unions and openly gay priests are accepted, if not universally, at least in some regions. True, the attacks on pedophilia and on the Vatican’s dodgy finances imply actual measures. But, if successful, they will amount to little more than abiding to laws that most states have had for centuries. Of course, we can be glad that the Vatican no longer tolerates pedophilia and that it manages its finances with more transparency, but that can hardly be taken as a revolutionary achievement. In the one realm he has direct authority on –the Church’s structure and doctrine– Francis’ papacy remains unimpressive.
In worldly matters changes are not so dramatic either. Popes have been criticizing capitalism, individualism, consumerism and Liberalism in their encyclicals since the late 19th century. Vocal concern for the dispossessed was also very much present in earlier times. Francis’ stances in more mundane issues –like the democratization of the UN, the protection of refugees, the Cuban embargo and the oppression of Palestine– are more idiosyncratic and do represent a most welcome shift. In these departments, however, Francis is not a leading voice; he is simply rallying with the leaders of most countries, who have been endorsing similar causes in the UN for years. Public gestures and moral criticism by religious leaders are of course important, as they can add legitimacy to actual political proposals. But it should be borne in mind that the political establishment is good at embracing moral desiderata and at paying lip service to good intentions, while continuing to do politics as usual. The fact that the Pope was cheered in the US Congress by both democrats and republicans indicates that his words are not considered dangerous by the powerful. Obama’s enthusiasm with him, actually, suggests the opposite.
Yet, there is one area in which Francis placed himself ahead of other world leaders, pushing the debate in new directions. That area is environmental politics. Needless to say, this issue has been a matter of public concern for quite some time. But it is fair to acknowledge that the encyclical Laudatio Si’ has moved the debate in a more radical direction, by putting forward critiques and ideas that were not part of the world leader’s agendas and that confront with the wishy-washy “green” solutions that they offer. The best example is the horizon of economic “degrowth” as the only way out of the current planetary crisis –the most remarkable element of the new encyclical. This idea has been around since the 1970s, but until now it was only matter of debate among visionaries, activists and unorthodox economists. By including it in his Laudatio Si’ Francis becomes the first world leader in putting forward that idea in the arena of higher, international politics.
The anti-capitalist potential of the “degrowth” horizon should not pass unnoticed for those who seek to transcend capitalism. It is unlikely that other world leaders will take this part of the Pope’s encyclical seriously. But it will probably help social movements and radical political organizations to gain more visibility in public debates.