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Pope Francis seeks to make new connections

Q & A with Professor Stephen Scharper

Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress on Thursday (photo by Martin Schulz via Flickr)

There are many firsts associated with Pope Francis. He is the first priest from the Americas to hold the position. He is the first pope to grace the cover of Rolling Stone. On Thursday he becomes the first to address the United States Congress.

The visit has generated wide interest, but the pontiff's policies have not resonated with everyone. U of T News spoke with Stephen Scharper, an associate professor in the department of anthropology, University of Toronto Mississauga, and the School of the Environment, about the Pope’s appeal and the message he is expected to deliver to the American people and beyond.

Cuban leader Raúl Castro, an atheist, was quoted as saying that if the Pope continues talking like this, he may return to church and start praying again. How do you explain his unusual appeal?

Francis’s appeal is twofold, and it combines several distinctive features of his papacy. First, he is expressing in his public appearances and comments a humility, joy, tolerance and openness of spirit that is compelling. As he said to one prelate, he enjoys being pope, and this is palpable. Second, he is mingling this winning public presence with a searing critique of a globalized economy that has been devastating for the earth’s ecosystems and has left one billion people in grinding poverty, as well as helping open wide gaps between rich and poor in more affluent nations, such as the U.S. and Canada. This critique deeply resonates with many who are unhappy with our present neoliberal economic system and inaction on climate change at the international level. Even non-Catholics, who don’t identify with his doctrinal teaching, can connect with his political and ecological message.

What is the basis of the Pope’s economic and ecological critique?

The basis is complex and unusual. It situates economics into a spirituality of right relationship, “friendship” among persons and between humans and the rest of creation, and the pursuit of a spirituality of simplicity and “godliness.” Economics is not a separate category for Francis. All questions of economics are embedded in this larger spiritual tradition, which, for the Pope, is embodied by St. Francis of Assisi, whose love of creation and love of the poor formed a “seamless garment” of compassion and holiness. In adopting St. Francis as his namesake, and accenting his vision in his encyclical Laudato Si (read Q & A with professor Scharper about Pope Francis’ encyclical), the Pope is attempting to eschew categories of left and right and offer an “integral ecology” that is dually concerned about marginalized persons and ravaged ecosystems.

Francis is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and addressing Congress. Is this a strategic move on his part? What message will he try to get across?

Though the Pope was invited to address Congress by Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic Republican, he certainly has a strategy. He is combining charisma with political savvy. He is making choices that come both from a profound spiritual concern and an urgent social and ecological agenda, namely, to help refugees, the economically disadvantaged, and to push world leaders to seriously address climate change at the coming climate summit in Paris in December. Francis combines his visits with presidents and political elites with prisoners, homeless, the mentally challenged, migrants and others who are “off the map.”  Francis is trying to create a “new map,” as it were, where places of power and of marginalization are connected. In effect, he is trying to create a new geography of care and responsibility, one which replaces “globalized indifference” with social compassion.

Some U.S. politicians have been openly critical of the Pope’s politics. What do they object to the most?

For many Republicans, global capitalism is almost included in the category of the sacred, and is a virtually sacrosanct political ideology. Also, for many American Christians, who see their faith in terms of personal morality, the notion of the social and structural meaning of their faith is foreign. While they firmly identify with the notion of “personal sin,” the idea of “social sin,” and how we as individuals and societies collude with racism, environmental pollution, climate change, and social and economic injustice, is not really in their religious lexicon. Catholic social teaching, however, ever since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), has included economic and political structures as part of the purview of Christian morality. Francis is firmly within this tradition.