Pope Francis salutes the crowd in St. Peter’s Square on October 22, 2014. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
Why do children suffer? When a Filipino child put that question to Pope Francis in January, the pontiff saluted her and called it the “question without an answer.” When she began to cry, he took her into his arms and said: “Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question. Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry. But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don’t know how to cry.”
In her innocence, the Filipino child pointed to one of the great surprises of our time: Against all secular odds, and even against the hope of chastened religious people, a figure has arrived on the world scene to whom the question without an answer can be put. And when he responds — not by pretending to remove suffering, or by denying it, but only by acknowledging it, and by joining in it — all the world, if despite itself, leans forward to listen.
Two years on from his election, this oddly garbed old man from Argentina has upended the assumptions and expectations of a generation. As a center of cultural and intellectual influence, much less as a moral force, religion was supposed to be finished with, except in the global backwaters of reaction and fundamentalism. In Europe, churches were empty — the most recent Pew data showed that only 25% of Italian Catholics considered religion “very important” in their lives. Among the French, only 15%. In America, Protestantism had been hijacked by science-denying evangelicals on the right, and Roman Catholicism had been crippled by sex-abuse scandals. Who imagined ever again taking a clue, much less encouragement, from a pope?
Make no mistake, this pope, however radical, is a man of the church, whose basic beliefs are in sync with doctrine and tradition. Yet the way he holds to those beliefs is different. By insisting that the culture wars about sexual morality, gender discrimination, and gay rights are not the only moral issues, or even, perhaps, the most important ones, the pope has changed their meaning. The absolutes of Christian ethics are not absolute now in the way they were when this pope was unexpectedly elected. Whether he has meant to or not, Francis, just by changing the ethos of hierarchical moral judgment, has laid the groundwork for a radical revision of how ethics are taught in theory and applied in situations. Mercy, at last, is trumping law. No one intuits this transformation more firmly than once marginal Catholics — the divorced, those unmarried but in intimate relationships, the previously beleaguered liberal nuns, or gay people. Catholic women, though still forbidden admission to the priesthood, also recognize something new at work. It is morning in Roman Catholicism.
Far more remarkable than Francis’s invigorating effect on the Church, or even on religious believers generally, however, is his effect on the broader world, a vast population long since satisfied to forego any reference to the life of faith. Other popes have been objects of global fascination, most notably the now-sainted John Paul II, who as a participant in the peaceful denouement of the Cold War achieved a rare level of world- wide celebrity. But John Paul II, like his more reticent successor, Benedict XVI, mistook his geographical perch atop the Vatican hill for a position of all-transcending moral superiority. That the papal election of Jorge Mario
Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was preceded by his precursor’s stunning resignation was enough, perhaps, to mark a new day. The fundamental reordering of Catholic leadership had already been made necessary, across two decades, by the Catholic hierarchy’s rampant failure to reckon with the sex abuse scandal. But no one could have imagined how different this reordering would be.
At first, observers spoke of the style of Pope Francis, as if modes of papal garb, residence, transportation, and diction were what mattered. But the new pope’s eschewing of the Apostolic Palace, the ermine cape, the Vatican limousine, and the papal “we” was paired with an immediate and emphatic insistence on the meaning of such renunciations. With ringing authenticity, Francis declared his identification with “those on the margins, those who had fallen by the wayside.” Prisoners, criminals, migrants, refugees, slum dwellers, the disease-ridden — he not only spoke of them, but he also went to them. He embraced them. He cried with them. I am with you, the pope said to all these desperate people. And to the rest of the world, he said: That so many suffer, and suffer so much, is wrong!
In his encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel,” published in 2013, the pope not only expressed compassion for the impoverished, but also denounced the structures of free-market capitalism that weigh like granite blocks on the backs of the poor:
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new…. Those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised — they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’
This “something new” is not an accident of the human condition, nor is it an axiom of history. It’s a direct consequence of unjust social, economic, and political structures. The structures are legal, even celebrated, but they are wrong. He continued: While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules…. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
Charity is not enough, the pope was saying. He demanded justice. For the poor, but also for the planet. Remarkably enough, this un- flinchingly radical social critique, which in developed nations had been mostly missing from economic and political discourse for two generations, has been getting through lately. Is it only coincidence that Francis’s tenure, to take only the American example, matches exactly the period during which savage income inequality has surfaced as an issue that must be faced? With an eye on elections, even Republicans address it. But the question has international bite. With Francis as its most vigorous critic, the global gulf between a tiny minority of the extremely affluent and the vast population of the poor is increasingly seen not only as a moral outrage, but also as a deadly harbinger of universal catastrophe.
Just this January, Oxfam reported that the share of global wealth possessed by the most fortunate 1% percent had increased to 49% in 2014, from 44% in 2009. This social system will not endure. The rich fool themselves if they imagine their enclaves as gated com- munities from which the unwashed hungry, or any other “them” — Arabs and Africans in Europe, Latinos in America, Muslims on both sides of the Atlantic — can be walled out. In the 21st century, there are no gates high enough, and all borders are porous.
Francis has emerged as the tribune of this new meaning of the human condition. In the past two years, to take only the most dramatic emblem, no prelates from the affluent United States have been elevated to the College of Cardinals. Instead these critical, future-shaping promotions have gone to clerics from places like Haiti, Cape Verde, Tonga, Myanmar, Hanoi, Bangkok, Uruguay, and Ethiopia. A deliberate choice is being made by a once decidedly Eurocentric organization that counts more than a billion members across the world, with potentially game-changing consequences for the whole human family. Francis is doing more than preaching.
Still, his most compelling act, perhaps, re- mains the utterance of a word, the first word he spoke as pope — and that was his name. Even after three years, and endless commentary, its revolutionary significance has yet to be fully plumbed. It is true that the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, a rich young man who renounced all worldly possessions to live as a mendicant, inevitably solidifies his name- sake’s identification with the poor, but that is not the half of it. If there is one global crisis that competes with material inequality as a danger, it is the already unfolding disaster of environmental degradation. St. Francis lives in the Western imagination, above all, as an icon less of human respect for the natural world than of love for it. His 13th-century Canticle of the Sun says: “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures…through Brother Sun…and Sister Moon…Brother Fire and Sister Water…through Brothers Wind and Air and clouds and storm and all the weather. Be praised!” More than any other saint of the narrowly religious tradition, Francis of Assisi belongs to everybody whose heart lifts at the sight of a sunset or a flowering tree or a winged creature — regardless of belief. Not only churchyards and cloisters, but also front lawns and public gardens are furnished with statues of the tonsured friar balancing a bird on outstretched fingers. But what if that bird is of a species that is in danger of disappearing? The extinction of whole classes of living things is at issue now — tens of thousands of species are known to be endangered — including, in an era of weapons of mass destruction, humanity itself.
Where is the surprise, then, that another major encyclical of Pope Francis addresses the urgent problem of man-made glob- al warming? Ahead of this year’s historic United Nations Climate Change Conference in December, the pope adds to the over- whelming scientific evidence, and fresh political momentum, an urgent exhortation rooted in the profound responsibility for creation for which the biblical tradition pro- vides the most compelling moral mandate.
It is as though, when taking up the gravest questions facing the human family, the pope asked himself the question: What would St. Francis of Assisi do? The question belongs not to a particular religion, much less ecclesiastical office, but to a profound human intuition in the face of looming perdition. The pope, it turns out, is bigger than the papacy. Neither the prophetic campaign on behalf of the poor; nor the potent sacralizing of the environmental challenge; nor even the nonmoralistic good humor with which Francis advances his proposals: None of this fully explains his broad appeal. These efforts, and the unfailing air of kindness with which he pursues them, palpably flow from a deep current in the man, an evident fullness of life — a fullness for which many people hunger, no matter what defines their background.
For the Jesuit pope, that fullness is particular. It’s rooted in — how else to say it — a lifelong, if evidently hard-earned, intimacy with Jesus Christ, and the God he makes present. But neither narratives about Jesus Christ, nor even language about one referred to as God, exhaust that fullness, or explain it. Perhaps, in the realm that extends beyond religious faith, all you can say is that in Francis can be glimpsed a transcendent horizon that humans are drawn to. There is an ever-elusive longing built into human life, and perhaps that is what Francis so broadly addresses. It’s easy to see why the abject poor see him as an ally, but what about Americans? In a culture rife with material excess, the inadequacy of material achievement and possession as fulfilling that deep human longing can seem blatantly apparent. Without proselytizing in the slightest, without putting himself forward as any kind of model, Francis suggests that a fullness of life — a home on that ever-receding horizon — is available to all people. That is why everyone absolutely deserves respect.
For the people outside Francis’s narrow religious zone of reference, it does not matter, to him, that dignifying fullness is a gift of God. What matters is simply its givenness, even if taken to be anonymous. And that givenness, above all, is what this good man exemplifies. The religious word for such virtue is grace, yet the effect of the fully honest witness of Francis has reached far beyond organized religion. That is so because he so unselfconsciously upholds the possibility that human life, including suffering, is meaningful, and that history, including tragedy, has a purpose. Francis is a man of explicit faith who makes such implicit hope seem real.
So, yes, a suffering child can entrust him with her unanswerable question. Indeed, most children in the world are suffering grotesquely. Francis knows it. He insists that we must all know it, too — not just abstractly, but in feeling and resolution. Such knowledge is the beginning of change — not only of economics and politics, but also of what humanity expects of itself. Above all, Francis insists not only that such change is necessary, but also that it is possible. Otherwise, he would not have bothered us. Nor would we have taken such notice.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of BlackBook Magazine.