At the Kairos Center, we’re very glad to have an ongoing relationship with the Committee on US-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) at Cornell University. CUSLAR students Julia Smith, Jordan Cowell and Gabriela LeBaron presented in our Peacemaking and Social Movements course at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in April. Their topic? The unifying voice and vision of Pope Francis in the global movement to address worsening inequalities and poverty caused by the current political and economic system. These and other students have recently produced a newsletter collecting their writings and research on Pope Francis. You can read one of their articles below, and on the CUSLAR website. You can see the complete newsletter here.


by Julia Smith, CUSLAR

Addressing popular movement leaders in Bolivia on July 9, 2015, Pope Francis powerfully expressed to his audience that Christians have an exceptional responsibility to fight for social justice in the world. He explained that, “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment. It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right.”

In his first three years as Pope, Francis has made it clear through his focus on economics and labor rights and his critique of capitalism, that he plans to make the Church an institution that makes common cause with the struggles of the poor.

An analysis of Pope Francis’s biography reveals that this focus on social and economic justice has been at the core of his life’s work. His commitment to “the least of these” was certainly not a surprise to the Catholic Church when he was elected in 2013.

Due to his views on economics and labor, his plea for the Church to include even “imperfect” Catholics, and his rejection of Papal luxuries, Francis is regarded by many as a radical. Yet, upon analysis of Christian teaching, it is clear that tending to the poor is by no means a novel idea to Catholicism. One of the Bible’s central themes, both in the Jewish tradition and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, is care for those on the margins of society and a denouncing of those who misuse power.

Francis comments on the ties between capitalism, the exploitation of peoples, and the exploitation of the planet, and he urges his global audience to continue their efforts in these three interrelated tasks.

Despite this, many Popes have sat on a throne of luxury, addressing the poor only through charity. Yet, when Francis said, “How I would love a church that is poor and for the poor,” upon election to his papacy, he was not talking about charity. He was speaking about global social change. He was speaking about a new world order that would liberate the poor from their oppressive circumstances.

Pope Francis has been consistent in this viewpoint in his writing and teaching, and it is perhaps clearest in his July 2015 speech to popular movements in Bolivia.

In this speech, Francis was not standing before an explicitly Catholic audience. He was addressing popular movement leaders, with diverse backgrounds and spiritual traditions.

Although the audience was largely from Latin American countries, there was representation from other regions as well.

Francis acknowledges his audience for their daily struggles, saying, “What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with their hearts full of hopes and dreams, but without any real solution for my problems? A lot! They can do a lot. 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, through your daily efforts to ensure the three ‘L’s’ (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional, and global levels. Don’t lose heart!”

One of the highlights of Francis’s speech is his repetition of the demands for land, lodging, and labor, which he asserts are sacred rights. Throughout this speech in Bolivia these three words become his slogan. He maintains that every person should have access to these very basic rights. Francis’s speech is accessible to the common person just as he has made himself accessible through his humble manner. His speeches do not hide his message in the frills of Papal language. In this clarity, his words are extremely powerful.

Pope Francis supports the call of popular movements: students from CUSLAR participate in one of our Peacemaking and Social Movements class sessions.
CUSLAR students Julia Smith, right, and Jordan Cowell at Union Theological Seminary.

Through this strength and simplicity, they have the capacity to bring people together. He aims to unite humanity to accomplish three great tasks. The first task is to make the global economy serve people. He maintains there must be an end to an economy that places profit over people, saying, “Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money. Let us say NO to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”

The second great task is to “unite peoples on the path of peace and justice.” In Francis’s mind, this means finding unity in Latin America but also ensuring sovereignty within countries. It is also in this section that Francis powerfully denounces the forms of colonialism old and new, and even more notably apologizes and expresses regret at the actions that the Church has played in the exploitation of peoples. Remembering that he is speaking to a largely indigenous audience, the significance of of these words must not be overlooked.

The third great task, according to Francis, is to defend Mother Earth. The Pope asserts that despite the gravity of all three tasks, this is the most important and urgent one of all.

Francis comments on the ties between capitalism, the exploitation of peoples, and the exploitation of the planet, and he urges his global audience to continue their efforts in these three interrelated tasks.

To accomplish these tasks, Francis knows there must be an upheaval of the status quo. He says, “So let’s not be afraid to say it: we need change; we want change.” Because the Catholic Church hierarchy has tended to resist change, it is not hard to understand why many see Francis as a radical.

Yet Pope Francis falls short of truly leading a revolution. He understands his role as crying out against injustice, but he does not want to be the commander in a global uprising. He clarifies that even though these injustices are heard felt acutely around the world today, it would be better if this imminent change is slow.

He explains: “Here in Bolivia I have heard of phrase I like: ‘process of change.’ Change seen as something which will one day result from any one political decision or change in social structure. We know from painful experience that changes of structure which are not accompanied by a sincere conversion of mind and heart sooner or later end up in bureaucratization, corruption and failure. That is why I like the image of a process, where the drive to sow, to water seeds which others will see sprout, replaces the ambition to occupy every available position of power and to see immediate results.”

Although Francis cannot be the true leader in a global movement, his words are inspiring. He may not lead the poor to overthrow their oppressive governments and exploitative economic systems, but his words might inspire them to do so on their own. Although his words fill his audience with passion and inspiration, he clarifies that it will not be the Pope who will provide the recipe for change.

But, if Pope Francis is not going to give us a recipe to solve these global problems then where might we find one? If Francis’s audience can agree that these urgent global problems exist, where might a global solution lie?

Although Pope Francis won’t provide an explicit solution it seems that he thinks this answer lies in local efforts: “I am pleased to see that you are working at close hand to care for those seedlings, but at the same time, with a broader perspective, to protect the entire forest. Your work is carried out against a horizon which, while concentrating on your own specific area, also aims to resolve at their root the more general problems of poverty, inequality and exclusion.”

This speech in Bolivia was directed to leaders of popular movements from all around the globe. These are leaders who inspire people to come together to fight a common cause. Does it not sound like Pope Francis himself is a leader of a popular movement? In reading his speech in Bolivia this sense of revolution is palpable. Simply reading his words on paper alone is powerful, perhaps only reflecting a fraction of the energy that emanates in his live address. I doubt his clarification that this imminent change must be slow would have subdued the fire in the hearts of his listeners.

Pope Francis’s address to popular movements speaks to a global audience. He calls for swift action in the defense of Mother Earth, the realization of peace among peoples and liberation from poverty. Although many of his words appear secular and universal, he also calls upon Christian obligation as being the highest order of moral duty for this global change. As the voice of more than a billion Catholics, the range of his message is unparalleled.

His global audience could not be bigger or more diverse in tradition, culture or lived experience. There are few voices as strong as his in terms of breadth of audience and depth of critique of inequality. Not only does Francis have the potential to unite people of the Christian faith, but he also has the potential to unite people across many traditional lines of division.

This makes his message even more powerful. There are many sections of this speech that contain no religious imagery at all. His religious imagery gives strength to his words, but perhaps his consistent universality makes them even stronger. In this speech, Francis cries out against the global economy of exclusion and his message is truly inclusive.