The Pope Francis Effect. Is the Pope a Catholic?

kOikOi00 via Flickr

It’s been a good year for the new Pope. Voted Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and with 3 million followers on twitter, I don’t know if a Pontiff has ever been more popular, certainly not with the left-wing in Britain, described by one Guardian journalist a ‘whistle-blower for the poor‘.

   I was in St Peter’s Square when it was announced that Pope Francis was to be the new Pope and even for a cynic like myself it’s difficult not to get caught up in the drama. 

Rushing through the streets of Rome to hear the announcement

   But eight months later why has this early interest inspired such plaudits? Initial reports spoke of the Jesuits’ involvement with the military dictatorship in Argentina. Yet Pope Francis’ popularity seems to know no bounds. From baby name tributes, (Francesco has become the most popular boys name in Italy) tourists are noticeably more present around Rome, church attendances are up and Catholic confidence is high. For a religion which has borne the brunt of scandals and social policies making it almost an irrelevance, it must be a welcome change for the faithful to feel that they have a leader who is making such a positive impact.

   Taking his name from Saint Francis of Assisi, famous for his compassion and humility, this first South American Pope’s informal, pared down style has been much appreciated by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He has famously opted to live in a single room at a Vatican guest house rather than the grand Apostolic Palace, he continues to travel in a Ford Focus, recently visiting the Italian President without the all-but-essential Italian cavalcade. These are encouraging touches of modesty in times of austerity, but is it really authentic? Or is it as my friend Giuseppe insists, just very good PR?
Semilla Luz via Flickr

   What has the Pope actually said or done to warrant such attention? The Pope’s first visit outside Italy proper was to asylum seekers on the island of Lampedusa highlighting the plight of international conflicts, poverty and immigration. During the mass on the island he spoke about the responsibility of us all not to look away, to say it is not our problem, calling our attitude to migrants the globalisation of indifference, “We have become accustomed to the suffering of others,” he said, “It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t concern us. It’s none of our business.

   In his first papal document written in November he attacked the “idolatry of money” and called on world leaders to guarantee “dignified work, education and healthcare” for all. Criticising global markets he went on, As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.

Gwydion M Williams via Flickr

   Strong stuff indeed. His declarations are surprising, sounding almost revolutionary given the current state of political discourse in the West. His critiques on the capitalist system are virtually unheard of; leading to suggestions from some American Catholics that he a Marxist. The Pope answered these criticisms stating, “Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended …He’s not without a sense of humour either.

   Jonathan Freedland describes him as having the ‘world’s loudest and clearest voice against the status quo‘. To me it also shows how far we have fallen from an intelligent, thoughtful public discourse. Pope Francis is for many filling a vacuum, not necessarily spiritual, but in many ways political too. When our politicians seem unable to grasp the seriousness and urgency of the economic and social plights we face, what he says seems to be amazingly radical. There will be people who’ve never heard such alternatives.
   However, many remain sceptical about the supposedly new direction the Pope is taking. Deeds and not only words will decide the future of this papacy. A survey to discuss the Church’s position with regard to the family will be followed by a meeting in 2014 which is expected to address the social and family issues which have so dogged the Catholic Church. However, for me, just for raising these issues, for putting the issues of poverty, exclusion and inequality at the heart of the news media he deserves the accolades. It is hard to be a cynic when as Michael Moore tweeted recently, ‘Just happy that in my life I got to see a black President of the United States quoting the Pope attacking capitalism.’ I think Person of the Year just about covers it.

A version of this article is also featured on JustaPlatform.


  1. “….making it almost an irrelevance”. At the end of 2013, there were approximately 1.2 billion Catholics in the world – that's ALL OVER the world.The word “irrelevance” and the figure of 1.2 billion people can never go together in a sentence. If you want people to take you seriously I suggest you either a) stick to things you know about b) write with facts in mind rather than prejudices and/or cliches or c) use the internet to check things before publishing (such as “Thatcher's quote” on bus travel over 30 which wasn't hers at all)


  2. The point that I was making was that for non-Catholics and for many Catholics too, the Church's views on marriage, contraception, sexuality and single-parents were so outside the experience of many, of modern life in general, that people weren't listening. In contrast, Pope Francis has made a huge impact and bolstered the morale of many Catholics who perhaps feel that people are now listening to their views and values.


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