Last week, I mentioned a report on N.P.R. about Pope Francis during a phone conversation with my mom, to which she replied excitedly, “I follow Pope Francis on Twitter!” My mom is one of many, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for whom Pope Francis’ papacy has been a bright spot in an increasingly contentious global landscape, and his approval rating in the U.S. and elsewhere has been high among Catholics alike for the last five years. However, recent events, including his statements about homosexuality, climate change, and capitalism, coupled with his association with sex abuse scandals rampant in parishes worldwide, have caused a dip in his popularity. Even some members of the Catholic clergy have criticized Pope Francis publically, and have called for either a reform in his attitude, or even his removal from the papacy. But despite the opposition and decreased approval he has faced recently, the tolerance, hope, and directness in towards pertinent social issues that Pope Francis has demonstrated in his time as pope make him a world leader we need now more than ever.
In 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became the first Latin American pope ever, garnering him considerable support in Latin America. Even outside of Latin America, Pope Francis received high approval ratings worldwide, with particular support coming from American Catholics: as of January 2017, eight in ten American Catholics approved of Francis’ actions as pontiff. His appeal has been unprecedentedly universal, spreading beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church, and many non-Catholic celebrities (including Kerry Washington, Chris Rock, and Russell Crowe) have voiced their support of Francis and his policies. Part of his appeal stems from his apparent humility: he drives a Fiat, handles his own hotel bills while traveling, and resides in a two-bedroom apartment instead of the official papal residency. He boasts 17.8 million followers on Twitter, and it is fair to say that he is one of, if not the most, popular and unique popes of the modern era.
Pope Francis has set himself apart from his predecessors by speaking out about many controversial political issues: climate change, economics, and even L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Francis has tweeted about the importance of environmental stewardship and the need to combat climate change, including one tweet (which received over 62,000 retweets) that stated: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” The Pope has also been concerned with economics: he published a book in 1998 that focused on the limits of capitalism, and his less than enthusiastic approach to capitalism has prevailed during his papacy. He has tweeted, “inequality is the root of all evil,” and has urged politicians and world leaders to “remember the poor.” And in perhaps his most controversial action since becoming pope in 2013, Francis stated in response to a question about gay members of the Catholic Church, “who am I to judge?”
An international religious leader who tackles L.G.B.T.Q. rights, climate change, and economic inequality sounds like a dream to some—but to others, it is akin to sacrilege for the leader of a historically conservative church to break from tradition. So while his approval rating was almost 90 percent in 2015, the same poll showed that only 45 percent of self-identified conservative American Catholics gave Francis a favorable rating, while 34 percent of the same group stated that they believed the Pope was too liberal.
The shift in papal perception is not limited to political discourse: the recent upheaval within the Catholic Church concerning sex abuse scandal has also caused a dramatic decrease in the Pope’s approval rating among American Catholics. A survey released by the Pew Research Center on October 2, 2018, reveals that only three in ten Catholics in the U.S. believe that Francis is doing a “good” job addressing the issue. Sexual assault is a contentious political topic, and because so often these allegations are dismissed, some believe that Francis is unconcerned with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. However, he has been outspoken about correcting sex abuse within the Church, urging Catholics to pray daily for their Church to be released from this “attack from the devil.”
Pope Francis has changed the way the world thinks of world religious leaders, and particularly the Catholic pope. While there is a large contingent of conservative Catholics and even clergy members who view Francis unfavorably (including one English priest who stated in an interview, anonymously: “We can’t wait for him to die,” while some cardinals have suggested he be accused of heresy), his message of love, equality, and universality is one the world needs now more than ever. As the gulf dividing the left and the right becomes ever deeper in the U.S. and worldwide, figures who can and are willing to reach across political boundaries to preach acceptance and justice have become increasingly scarce. Pope Francis’ views lean more left of center than the Catholic Church has traditionally, but the values of environmental stewardship and cross-cultural fellowship are necessary to maintaining a global society with any kind of merit. Though religion might not have a place in all political discourse, the office of pontiff is one with such historic influence that it is preferable that this position be held by someone who can draw support of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. If you don’t follow Francis on Twitter (@Pontifex), give it a try—the relevance of his messages may surprise you, and you might be convinced that he is the perfect pope for the world we live in today.
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